Manchester City lead the charge in wide-open Champions League
For the first time in over a decade, tournament's quarter-finalists will include none of the champions from England, Spain or Italy
More than five months may have passed in between the coups, but the towering monuments keep on falling.
For the first time in well over a decade, the Champions League’s quarter-finalists will include none of the champions from either England, Spain or Italy.
And although the out-of-joint timeline of this year’s competition meant all domestic prizes had been wrapped up before the European Cup’s knockout phase had moved up its gears, it still looks a very unusual landscape.
And for Manchester City, it cannot help but look like a huge opportunity.
Whichever club ends up as 2020 European champions, they will have progressed from the last-16 stage, which City passed through via an impressive 4-2 aggregate victory over Madrid on Friday, to glory via just three matches.
Uefa’s decision to make the quarters and the semis one-legged affairs in the neutral venue of Portugal’s capital Lisbon was a necessary reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, and its impact on the football calendar.
If the format is novel, so is the make-up of the so-called ‘Final 8’. A large majority of the clubs now preparing for Lisbon have never won a European Cup. While the likes of City and Paris Saint-Germain, who have come under transformative new ownership in the last 12 years, can consider themselves superpowers in the sport, both remain hungry for the endorsement a first Champions League title will bring.
Elsewhere, this is truly the year of the freshmen: Atalanta, in their first-ever season in the Champions League, are still involved, while Juventus are not. RB Leipzig are three matches from glory, having never been this far in Europe’s principal club competition.
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As for Lyon, who meet City at the Jose Alvalade stadium on Saturday, they are no less plucky, against-the-odds survivors than Atalanta and Leipzig. It is 10 years since they made the last eight.
By the end of their tiring, taut 2-1 defeat in Turin on Friday, they had also achieved something nobody had managed for a decade: they had prevented Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus’s talisman, progressing to a European Cup quarter-final.
Ronaldo, a Champions League winner with Manchester United and then four times with Real Madrid and the greatest ever goalscorer in the competition, registered his 170th and 171st European Cup goals against Lyon in Turin.
But, after Memphis Depay had put Lyon 1-0 up by converting a disputed penalty, a crucial away goal, Juventus needed three on the night. Lyon had taken a 1-0 lead to Italy from the first leg, played way back in February.
Ronaldo alone could not buckle them, and although Lyon spent much of the later part of Friday night in retreat, there can only be admiration for their organisation and courage.
Because France’s Ligue 1 season was abandoned due to the public health crisis, with no fixtures played since March, Lyon had just one competitive game to reset themselves, post-lockdown, for the Juve trip.
And that was a sapping, goalless 120 minutes, lost on penalties, in last Sunday’s French League Cup final against PSG. Juve, who won their ninth Serie A title on the trot two weeks ago, have played 15 games since Italian football restarted in June.
“I’m really proud of what we showed,” said Rudi Garcia, who took over as Lyon’s manager only in October and had lifted them only as far as seventh in Ligue 1 when football in France was effectively stopped.
“We needed talent, endurance, team spirit and intelligence, because we used our heads against Juventus. We may have lost on the night but with what we achieved in the first leg, we deserve to be in the quarter-finals.
“We now have to go on to another big achievement. City are the stronger club, we know that. But so were Juve. If our players needed any proof we can be a ‘big team’, they now have it.”
Over in Manchester, after City’s 2-1 win on the night over Madrid, those sentiments were being echoed by Pep Guardiola, City’s manager. “The big clubs lift the titles,” Guardiola said. “Real Madrid reached the final three times in a row [2016 to 2018]. This shows we can do it. We don’t have a lot of presence in Europe, so it is so important.”
Updated: August 8, 2020 04:13 PM