This article was originally published on champions-journal.com. You can buy the latest issue of Champions Journal here.
It will be all eyes on Lisbon, then. Today’s confirmation from UEFA’s Executive Committee that this paused Champions League campaign will resume with a seven-match mini tournament in the Portuguese capital will have football watchers worldwide ringing the relevant August dates in bright red ink in their diaries.
The change of format alone promises plenty of intrigue, the one-off quarter-final and semi-final matches marking a change from the two-legged structure in place almost exclusively since the first European Cup season six-and-a-half decades ago. Will it mean more cagey matches, like first legs often are? Or the more caution-to-the-wind contests that second legs tend to give us?
The Estádio da Luz and Estádio José Alvalade will provide the venues, with the former staging the final on Sunday 23 August. As it stands, only four teams are currently sure of a place in Portugal: tournament newcomers Atalanta and Leipzig, along with Liverpool’s conquerors Atlético de Madrid and a Paris-Saint-Germain side through to this stage for the first time in four years.
The remaining four berths will go to the winners of the following ties, whose second legs will finally be played in the first week of August: Barcelona v Napoli (first leg score: 1-1), Bayern München v Chelsea (3-0), Juventus v Lyon (0-1) and Manchester City v Real Madrid (2-1). Whether these matches are played in respective home stadiums in Barcelona, Munich, Turin and Manchester remains undecided; the alternative would be Portugal, with the Estádio do Dragão in Porto and Estádio Dom Afonso Henriques in Guimaraes providing the additional venues.
By the time the first quarter-final comes around on 12 August, it will be more than five months since the last kick of a ball in the 2019/20 Champions League, at Anfield on 11 March. In the case of PSG, owing to the cancellation of the Ligue 1 season, they won't have played a single competitive match since their victory over Borussia Dortmund at an empty Parc des Princes on that same early-spring night.
The form book from before the Covid-19 hiatus is best viewed, therefore, as a reminder of what was, rather than as a clue to what might come next. It shows Bayern as the only team with a 100% record so far: seven wins from seven with 11 goals from the competition’s leading scorer, Robert Lewandowski. Barcelona and Napoli are unbeaten too, though only one can progress from their second leg.
If Bayern have been the team to beat, the surprise package are undoubtedly Atalanta, Gian Piero Gasperini’s debutants who lost their first three matches but used a 1-1 draw with Manchester City as the springboard to a four-match winning run, escaping Group C and then putting eight past Valencia in the process.
Whatever unfolds on the pitch, Lisbon, the western most capital in mainland Europe, should provide a fine stage. It was at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz six years ago that Sergio Ramos’s last-gasp header saved Real Madrid from defeat by neighbours Atlético, before an eventual 4-1 win in extra time and the Merengues’ 10th squeeze of the big prize. At the old Estádio Nacional in 1967, Lisbon witnessed a different kind of triumph: Jock Stein’s Celtic side of local boys beating Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale to record Britain’s first win in the competition.
Anybody present at EURO 2004, meanwhile, will retain warm memories of Lisbon’s role in an attractive tournament (with the spellbinding Portugal v England quarter-final a personal highlight). That EURO ended with a quite unexpected Greek triumph. This time it is the whole of European football in uncharted territory, but hopefully ready to be touched by that special lightness of mood that summer football can bring, as this most unusual of seasons finally concludes.