Champions League finals with a different look could spring surprises
BERLIN - This very different Champions League season concludes with a unique mini-tournament in Lisbon from Wednesday onwards with six of the eight clubs left aiming to win the elite event for the first time.
Bayern Munich and Barcelona are the only past winners, and one of the two five-time champions will be out on Friday night because they meet in the quarter-finals.
This could open the door for Atletico Madrid to finally lift the trophy after three runners-up spots, or for ambitious Middle East money backed Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain to win the title they have been desiring for years.
And then there are also Atalanta, RB Leipzig and Olympique Lyon who could make the most of the one-legged format to spring a surprise on August 23 at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz.
The coronavirus has played havoc with the sports calendar and the Lisbon event takes place under strict safety and hygiene measures, with all teams in mini bubbles and games behind closed doors.
And there is already a scare as Atletico announced late Sunday that two of their 92 members, reportedly players, set to travel to Lisbon have tested positive for Covid-19 and are isolated - which is delaying their departure.
But all clubs have big ambitions with Munich forward Thomas Mueller saying after arrival at their camp on the Algarve coast on Sunday that "we are not on a holiday trip."
Bayern appear to be the form team of the eight sides left, eyeing a treble as in 2013, unbeaten in all competition since early December with 26 wins from those 27 matches and boasting the Champions League top scorer in Robert Lewandowski with 13 goals.
They handily completed a last-16 job against Chelsea on Saturday for a 7-1 aggregate win and in Hansi Flick have a coach who knows how to handle such finals tournaments, having been Germany assistant coach when they won the 2014 World Cup.
Bayern have however gone out against Spanish opposition in five of the past six seasons, including against Barca in 2015 when the Catalans lifted the trophy for the last time.
Barca have not been convincing this season, losing the La Liga title race to Real Madrid but beating Napoli 3-1 last week to make it to Lisbon and Lionel Messi showing he hasn't lost his magic.
Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso said that "Barca are no longer the team they were in the past" while Barca coach Quique Setien remained defiant.
"Bayern are a great team but so are we," he said, with striker Luis Suarez insisting that "anything can happen in one game" in their bid to make the August 19 semi against City or Lyon.
Quarter-final action meanwhile starts Wednesday with PSG v Atalanta.
Atalanta are the sentimental favourites given the large number of Covid-19 deaths in their stricken home city of Bergamo, and the team has impressed with third place in the Serie A, scoring 98 goals in the process.
"Being in the quarter-finals is an amazing achievement," coach Gian Piero Gasperini said of their tournament debut. "We are pleased to tackle PSG and will take our chances at our best. Because can have some chances."
PSG have meanwhile played only twice since March because the French League was abandoned and they were declared champions. The Parisiens are led by Neymar and Kylian Mbappe could feature after all in Portugal as he has been named in the squad despite an ankle injury.
The winner plays Atletico or Leipzig on August 18, with Diego Simeone's side making another attempt for glory after knocking out holders Liverpool just before the lockdown.
Atletico lost the 2014 final against crosstown rivals Real Madrid in the Estadio Da Luz, again to them in 2016, and against Munich in 1974.
Leipzig are first-time quarter-finalists, have lost their top forward Tiumo Werner to Chelsea but are determined to make the most of the unique format.
"Every team has the chance to win the title this year, partly because there are no two legs. Us as well. It is up to us to continue writing our story in Lisbon," Leipzig sports director Markus Kroesche told broadcasters Sport1 ahead of the first date at the Estadio Jose Alvalade stadium.
Backed by energy drinks makers Red Bull, the Leipzig club was only founded in 2009, the year Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola won his first of two Champions League titles with Barcelona.
But he has not lifted the trophy since, neither in three attempts at Munich nor so far at City who made it to Lisbon by completing a last-16 win over record 13-time champions Real on Friday.
Guardiola named knocking out Real an "important first step for our confidence, for our future," and added despite being aware of top opposition still to come - starting with Juventus' conquerors Lyon on Saturday - "we're here to try and win the Champions League."