This week, the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals take place in rather exceptional circumstances.
The eight teams to reach this stage will travel to Lisbon, where they will play out the rest of the tournament in a single-game knockout, World Cup-style format—a departure from the usual two-legged, home-and-away structure because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
So if this stage of the competition were an exciting, unpredictable rollercoaster before, things have been ramped up thanks to a new, more intense, somewhat unknown setting.
This acts as your preview for each quarter-final game, where we dissect the four fixtures, pick out how and why they will be decided and offer a prediction for each one.
Atalanta vs. Paris Saint-Germain
When this tie was announced our collective jaws dropped, mouths salivating at the thought of two high-octane attacks going head-to-head for 90 enthralling minutes.
But events leading up to the game have soured things a little; we seem set to be without a lengthy list of players because of injuries and personal issues.
Atalanta could be without star attacker Josip Ilicic and defensive stalwart Jose Luis Palomino, while starting goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini has been officially ruled out. For PSG, Kylian Mbappe and Marco Verratti are doubts and Angel Di Maria is suspended, while Thilo Kehrer and Layvin Kurzawa are reportedly injured, per Goal. Hell, even manager Thomas Tuchel picked up a knock the other day!
Still, we'll see Neymar and Papu Gomez spearhead exciting, tactically intriguing sides each capable of scoring a hatful of goals on Wednesday, which maintains this fixture's status as must-watch.
The absences PSG are dealing with will likely necessitate a pretty cautious midfield selection of two of Marquinhos, Leandro Paredes and Idrissa Gueye—or perhaps even all three. It's not what they would do in an ideal world, but it may help them in combating Atalanta's love for switching play from side to side. If they can break that up and prevent service to the wing-backs in space, it could be the first step to blunting one of Europe's prime attacking forces.
If La Dea do work the ball wide consistently, creating the three vs. two overloads they look for and bringing the wing-backs inward towards the box, PSG will struggle. There's an argument a 3-4-3 shape, matching up to Atalanta, is a good plan here; it would give PSG numbers on each flank and help the wide duo (Juan Bernat and Colin Dagba, at this rate) deal with what's thrown at them.
Marquinhos on Gomez between the lines is a key battle, as is whoever Atalanta deploy to stop Neymar taking over at the other end. PSG may have to line up (at least from the start) without Mbappe, but they still have this game's best player; for once, Neymar's fit and firing at this stage of the competition, and his team-mates are showing a maturity and game-management ability they've lacked over the years.
Prediction: Atalanta 1-2 PSG
RB Leipzig vs. Atletico Madrid
Previewing a clash between a team that hasn't played for a month against a team that hasn't played for two weeks, in an empty stadium, is difficult enough. However, it is made more complicated by the news that Atletico Madrid have confirmed two coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours and have had to enforce self-isolation measures. The club announced on Monday (h/t Dermot Corrigan of The Athletic) the two players in question are Angel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko.
That disruption to preparations perhaps swings the pendulum back towards RB Leipzig a little after developments over the past few months have all generally served Atletico: they finally found their goalscoring touch post-lockdown, the single knockout format suits them and their opponents losing Timo Werner (a 34-goal striker) changes the face of this tie.
It's a meeting between one of Europe's best pressing teams and one of Europe's best low-block defensive teams. Leipzig will likely lack the competitive sharpness needed to press for 90 minutes and beyond, so they may well go for the throat early, as the longer the game goes on, the more it suits Atletico's approach and enhanced fitness levels.
In Werner, Leipzig have lost one of the best in the game at sniffing out chances in the box—an important trait to break down Atletico's compact defensive style. It could be that the odd stray ball in the box is the total sum of chances you can create against them.
Atleti's centre-back corps, led by Felipe, will relish the physical contest strikers Yussuf Poulsen and Patrik Schick offer, and after winning those duels, the onus will be on the deepest midfielder's vertical passing to turn defence into attack in the face of high pressure. If Thomas Partey is fit that's big—his incisive passing can slice teams open—if not, one of Saul Niguez or Koke will need to assume the mantle.
Atleti's out-balls could be any of Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata, Joao Felix and Marcos Llorente, and they all offer something slightly different. Llorente's redevelopment into a support striker in recent months (having previously been a defensive midfielder) has added thrust and aggression to the forward line when Costa's not playing (or not playing well).
Leipzig will play a high defensive line that can be exploited, but the reason they do so is because the recovery speed of Dayot Upamecano is mind-blowing. How well he patrols the halfway line is one half of the equation for Leipzig, the other is what Christopher Nkunku can conjure in attack to replace Werner's output.
Prediction: Leipzig 0-1 Atletico Madrid
Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich
It feels odd to be heading into a Champions League quarter-final between two of Europe's titans, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, only for so many to be convinced this match only ends one way: a Bayern victory.
This is Barcelona, two-time winners in the past decade, in possession of the best player on Earth, Lionel Messi. How have we got to the point where they are expected to be steamrolled?
But the more you question it, check it and re-rationalise it, the more it makes sense. Contrasting this older, slower Barca side against the machine that is Bayern can only lead you to one conclusion—unless, of course, Messi goes full Messi and decides the game on his own.
If he produces the sort of performance he did against Napoli on Saturday, when he put the game out of reach for the Partenopei, Barca may ride his coattails to victory.
But Barca's willingness to surrender possession against the Italians was a little alarming—they gave them a chance to get back into it—and the lack of off-the-ball pressure high up allowed their opponents to build attacks.
Without a constant, 11-man effort off the ball against Bayern Munich, they will be picked apart. And if they look solely to Messi, he may find it harder to have his way with the ball when matched up against defenders like Alphonso Davies and David Alaba, who boast an incredible range of defensive acumen and raw speed.
That battle is what will decide this game. If Alaba and Davies (with the help of the midfield) can keep Messi to even 50 per cent capacity, Bayern will best Barca in every other area and win the game. Robert Lewandowski is on fire, Thomas Muller is back to his best and the speed Die Roten offer on the flanks will be too much for a Barca side who cannot go up and down the pitch for 90 minutes.
Prediction: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Manchester City vs. Lyon
Lyon provided the shock of the round of 16 by beating Juventus on away goals. They survived what was expected to be an onslaught and another highlight performance from Cristiano Ronaldo with, whisper it, relative ease.
Yes, they conceded two goals, but one was a joke of a penalty call and the other a long-range howitzer from Ronaldo. Very little in the way of coordinated passing moves troubled them, as their 3-5-2 defensive shape mopped up crosses and closed the space outside the penalty box extremely well.
Houssem Aouar, Bruno Guimaraes and Maxence Caqueret (average age 21.3) put in big shifts in the middle, preventing Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur controlling, dribbling or doing anything of creative note.
They cleared their lines to Memphis Depay and Karl Toko Ekambi, two direct runners with speed and strength, giving them a sharp edge on the counter-attack, which Moussa Dembele added to off the bench.
This is exactly what Man City will face on Saturday. There will be no surprises and no shape changes. Lyon have settled into this style and will try to pull off Operation Turin three more times and lift the trophy.
Pep Guardiola's men will have to work extremely hard to find the gaps and spaces needed to score against them, and it's not as if he's going to commit seven to doing so. He himself has tightened up his approach on the European stage, using Rodrigo and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield, appreciating the added security it offers ahead of Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte in defence.
If there are spaces to find, they will be down the flanks, behind the wing-backs. If City can retain the width in their play (something Guardiola always preaches) and slip in behind Maxwell Cornet and Leo Dubois, there's joy to be had. Federico Bernardeschi almost scored a sensational solo goal doing exactly that on Friday.
Lyon will clear long in the face of City's pressing, eager to avoid a Raphael Varane scenario, and that will skip the midfield and match Laporte and Fernandinho directly against the quick forwards. Who wins that battle is part of how this game will be decided; the other is how effectively Raheem Sterling and Co. can find spaces in Lyon's structure to pull them apart.
Prediction: Man City 2-1 Lyon
All statistics via WhoScored.com