Despite being preseason favourites for all four competitions in which they have participated, Champions League exit would mark the third time in Pep Guardiola’s coaching career that he has failed to win either a domestic title or Europe’s flagship competition. Win it, and his Manchester City project grows in scale despite a disappointing domestic season.
Football’s suspension gives this tie a markedly different feel. Before the first leg, Real Madrid had lost to Leganes and drawn with Celta Vigo to fall behind Barcelona in La Liga and been eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Real Sociedad. City had won nine of their previous 12 matches, with one of the exceptions a second-leg EFL Cup defeat to Manchester City that still saw them progress to the final. Now the pressure is piled upon a team that has proven itself to be defensively frail and profligate in the final third when it matters most.
Zinedine Zidane’s side must surely score first and score early. On six of the last seven occasions that City have conceded first they have gone on to lose the game, three times by a scoreline that would take Real Madrid through in 90 minutes. There is an inexplicable mental weakness within Guardiola’s team that makes them panic after setbacks, although the one exception in that list of seven matches was the first leg in Spain.
Much will depend on Kevin de Bruyne, who is yet to stamp his authority on the Champions League and has only played in one semi-final. If he can escape Casemiro’s potential man-marking job, Guardiola will be confident of a comfortable passage into the quarter-finals.
Potentially the standout fixture of the round. Maurizio Sarri secured the first trophy of his career by winning the Scudetto but there are plenty of doubts surrounding Juventus. They won only two of their last eight league games in Serie A and lost the Coppa Italia final on penalties to Napoli. One clean sheet in their last ten games suggests a defensive uncertainty that Lyon can exploit. Score once, and Juventus will require three goals to progress.
For Lyon, a shot to nothing. They are still outsiders to qualify despite their first-leg lead, finished seventh in Ligue 1’s curtailed season and have played one competitive match since March, losing the Coupe de la Ligue final to Paris Saint-Germain on penalties. But the goal threat of Moussa Dembele and a fit-again Memphis Depay allows them to sit deep and defend with a low block before trying to hit Juventus on the counter.
It’s hard not to frame the match entirely around Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo has scored 65 goals in the Champions League knockout stages, more than every player bar Lionel Messi and Raul have managed in the competition as a whole. For all his advancing years, he retains an unsurpassed ability to drag his teams through on occasions such as these. With ten goals in his last 11 appearances, Ronaldo used the break to recover and enters this mini-tournament ready to equal Francisco Gento’s record of six European Cups as a player. If he flourishes, Juventus qualify.
2020 has plunged Barcelona into crisis. It started with the controversial emergency signing of Martin Braithwaite, continued with a slide in revenue and increase in debts and the resignation of six directors and ends — for now — with rumours of infighting on the board and in the squad and a title handed to Real Madrid. The playing staff is woefully imbalanced and overpaid, and there are serious questions to be asked of club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
Barcelona should still have too much for Napoli. They need only to win at the Camp Nou against a side that looked reinvigorated in the spring under new manager Gennaro Gattuso but won only eight of their 19 away league games this season and kept three clean sheets in their last 25 Serie A matches. With Kostas Manolas out and Lorenzo Insigne doubtful, much will rely upon Kalidou Koulibaly (who may be leaving this summer) and Dries Mertens.
Napoli can take heart from Barcelona’s own absentees. Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal are both suspended for Saturday’s game, while Samuel Umtiti ruled out with a knee injury. The problem is that all three of Barcelona’s frontline - Messi, Griezmann and Suarez - are all fit to seek a season-redeeming Champions League run.
A competitive match in name alone? Probably. In beating Tottenham 7-2 and Chelsea 3-0, Bayern produced arguably the most complete performance of this season’s group stage and last-16 stage. Frank Lampard will stress that the freedom of such a deficit allows his players to attack the second leg absolved of all pressure, but Bayern are far more likely to overpower Chelsea than they are to suffer any serious concerns about elimination.
This is also an important night for Bayern. They would probably merit being favourites for this competition were it not for their lack of competitive football, but an earlier finish to the Bundesliga than in Spain or England creates doubt. Bayern come into the second leg having not played since July 4, and will use the game to ease their way into a hectic period of knockout football.
But Hansi Flick’s side remain the form team in Europe, having won their last 17 competitive games and with Europe’s most complete centre forward looking to add to his 51 goals in comfortably the most prolific season of his career. Bayern have scored 27 goals in seven Champions League this season, and need 14 more from a potential four remaining games to break Liverpool’s record set in 2018 (in two fewer matches).
Bayern will back themselves to shrug off any rustiness, eliminate either Barcelona or Napoli to set up a semi-final that will produce the heavy favourite for the final on August 23. Nine months after his initial interim appointment, Flick could complete an astonishing treble.