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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Champions League Tips: Bayern on track for European glory

Champions League Tips: Bayern on track for European glory

The Champions League restarts in August with the conclusion of the last-16 ties. Kevin Hatchard rates the remaining 12 teams in the competition.

How will the Champions League restart work?

The success of restarts in Germany, England, Spain, Italy and elsewhere is a testament to the hard work of the various national league bodies, and the players and staff who have so diligently followed stringent hygiene regulations. Buoyed by this success, UEFA have committed to completing both the Champions League and the Europa League.
The Champions League will restart on August 7 with the outstanding last-16 ties to be completed across the 7th and the 8th. Those games will take place at the original venues.
The quarter-finals onwards will be single-leg knockout ties, and all of them will take place in the Portuguese capital Lisbon at either Benfica's Estadio Da Luz or Sporting's Estadio Jose Alavalade.
The schedule will be as follows:
Quarter-finals: 12-15 August
Semi-finals: 18-19 August
Final: 23 August
All of the games will kick off at 21:00 CET, which is 20:00 UK time.

Quarter-final draw

Manchester City or Real Madrid v Juventus or Lyon
Atletico Madrid v RB Leipzig
PSG v Atalanta
Barcelona or Napoli v Bayern Munich or Chelsea

Semi-final draw

Manchester City/Real Madrid/Juventus/Lyon v Napoli/Barcelona/Bayern Munich/Chelsea
RB Leipzig/Atletico Madrid v PSG/Atalanta

Dominant Bayern primed for shot at treble glory

Bayern Munich - 4.40 to win the Champions League
For the second campaign running, Bayern Munich have done the domestic double, adding the DFB Cup to the Bundesliga meisterschale. However, there is a distinct difference between this season's Bayern and the one that often misfired last term. While Niko Kovac was found wanting tactically in last season's Champions League exit against eventual winners Liverpool, his successor as coach Hansi Flick has the full faith of his players and bosses. Flick has transformed Bayern's approach with and without the ball, and the results have been spectacular.
Bayern won 25 of their final 26 games of the campaign in all competitions, including the 3-0 win at Chelsea which means they are within touching distance of a quarter-final spot. Robert Lewandowski has just completed his best-ever Bundesliga campaign, rattling in 34 goals, while Thomas Müller posted a single-season record figure of 21 league assists. Flick is confident that the month-long gap between competitive matches won't derail his team, and I believe Bayern can lift the trophy.

Ultimate ambition four games away for City

Manchester City - 4.10 to win the Champions League
It would be ironic if Manchester City were able to finally realise their ambition of being crowned as champions of Europe, only to be banned from defending that title. We'll soon know whether City's appeal against a two-year sanction for breaching Financial Fair Play rules will be upheld, but whether it is or isn't, the pressure on City and Pep Guardiola to win the Champions League this term is enormous. After a catalogue of knockout failures and the loss of the Premier League crown to Liverpool, the questions about City's Catalan coach are growing louder.
At their best, City are tough to live with, and their outstanding comeback win at Real Madrid in the first leg of the last 16 has given them a 2-1 advantage to defend at the Etihad Stadium. However, Real are in pole position to win La Liga, and they have looked very solid since the restart. City are justifiable favourites to qualify from this position, but given Guardiola's penchant for taking big tactical risks in the Champions League, I'm not convinced the one-off nature of this format will suit City. Over two legs, the effects of a failed gamble are easier to mitigate, and I can't get excited about backing City to win the tournament at 4.10.

Never discount Messi, but fragile Barca have problems

Barcelona - 8.40 to win the Champions League
Barcelona were one of my ante-post tips to win this competition, and while I still think they are a capable of lifting the trophy, there are big issues in Catalonia. I believe that firing coach Ernesto Valverde was a mistake, and his replacement Quique Setien has failed to convince fans or players that he is the right man to take the club forward. Betfair ambassador Rivaldo has lambasted his former club, expressing concerns about the quality of their play.
The return from injury of Luis Suarez has been a timely boost, there are sporadic flashes of Antoine Griezmann's lavish quality, and Lionel Messi remains the world's best player (don't @ me). That firepower does keep Barcelona in the mix in any individual game, but there are big concerns over the team's defensive fragility. At time of writing, Barca had the worst Expected Goals Against figure in La Liga's top four according to Infogol, and all too often they rely upon their excellent goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to get them out of trouble. That defence will be sorely tested against a Napoli side that has been somewhat surprisingly revived by Gennaro Gattuso, and after a 1-1 first-leg draw in Naples, there's no guarantee that Barca will even make it as far as the quarter-finals. At 8.40, Barca seem too short to win the trophy.

Has idle summer cost PSG their chance of success?

Paris Saint-Germain - 7.40 to win the Champions League
PSG's 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in the last 16 of this competition felt like a watershed moment at the time, as Thomas Tuchel's men had shown they could turn a tie around and perform under immense pressure. However, the French champions haven't played since, after Ligue 1 was suspended in March. It won't be a completely cold start for the capital club - they face Saint Etienne in the Coupe de France final on July 24, before taking on their old foes Lyon a week later in the final of the Coupe de la Ligue. These showpiece occasions should sharpen PSG up quickly, a glittering pre-season ahead of the club's main event.
Despite such a long break, I think the intensity required from those matches will be adequate preparation, and PSG don't have to worry about tiptoeing through the last 16. Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria should all be fit, and signings like goalkeeper Keylor Navas and midfield shield Idrissa Gueye have given Tuchel's side a solidity they have hitherto lacked. Given PSG's poor record in the latter stages of this tournament, questions will linger, but the French giants seem better value at 7.40 than Barcelona currently do at a similar price bracket.

Anfield heroics have transformed Atleti's season

Atletico Madrid - 11.00 to win the Champions League
After scoring the brace that dumped European champions Liverpool out of this season's UCL, Marcos Llorente named his dog Anfield. Not only has that virtuoso display ignited Llorente's season, but it has given Atletico renewed self-belief. Diego Simeone's side was having a bit of an identity crisis after a big turnover of players last summer (they lost Diego Godin, Antoine Griezmann, Rodri and Lucas Hernandez), but the grit and consistency have returned.
A flurry of wins and clean sheets has propelled Los Colchoneros back into the top three in Spain, and former Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata has been scoring goals and looking sharp. Atleti showed in the first leg against Liverpool that they can spoil, scrap and disrupt, and as we've seen before (Atleti got to the UCL final in 2014 and 2016) that approach can yield sizeable dividends. No-one will want to face Atletico. If you think they can battle their way to another final, you could back them to reach the final at 4.10.

Firepower means Juventus are a value option

Juventus - 18.00 to win the Champions League
I said from the get-go that I felt Juventus were overpriced in the winner market, and I still believe that. Yes, they are 1-0 down from the first leg against Lyon, but I expect them to find a way through that tie, and their quality in attack gives them a big chance of success in one-off matches from then on. Cristiano Ronaldo has been averaging nearly a goal a game in Serie A, Paulo Dybala has scored some mesmerising goals, and the return to fitness of Gonzalo Higuain gives the Italian champions yet more depth up front.
Coach Maurizio Sarri has been constantly doubted and questioned, and the tepid performance in the Coppa Italia final against his beloved Napoli did him few favours (Juve lost on penalties after a 0-0 draw). However, his team is still well clear of strong Lazio, Inter and Atalanta sides in the Serie A title race, and that has to count for something. I don't see why Juventus are more than twice as big as Barcelona in this market, and I'd get on that price of 18.00 now. Alternatively, you can back them in the To Qualify market of their tie against Lyon at 1.87.

Atalanta are everyone's favourite wild card

Atalanta - 14.50 to win the Champions League
There's an argument to say that Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta are already the biggest success story of this season's Champions League. In their first ever campaign at this level, they had no points at all at the halfway point of the group stage, and just one point after four matchdays. They defied the odds - matched at 1000.00 in the outright market - and the history books to reach the last 16, and then they swept aside Valencia to reach the quarter-finals. Their success has an extra emotional resonance, as Bergamo was one of the places hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, and there is a feeling that the squad is trying to give the locals as much of a lift as they can.
Coach Gasperini has changed Atalanta's mindset completely. They were once a team that was happy to just survive in Serie A, content to eke out draws and make up the numbers. Now they have a voracious appetite for goals. At time of writing, Atalanta had scored 162 league goals since the start of last season, comfortably the highest total in Serie A, and they have been in storming form since the restart.
It's a real team effort, but Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic are the creative stars, while Duvan Zapata is an excellent attacking spearhead. The likes of Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskiy offer depth in attack and midfield, and are proven game-changers. I know Betfair trader Jason Murphy is a backer at the prices but I still think as a collective Atalanta aren't quite ruthless or experienced enough to go all the way. They might, however, take a big name down with them before they go.

Werner-less Red Bulls' charge has slowed

RB Leipzig - 19.00 to win the Champions League
In my ante-post preview for the Champions League, I put RB Leipzig up as a back-to-lay at 85.00, and they have shone so far. They came through a very competitive group as section winners, and then beat Spurs home and away. However, I fear that Julian Nagelsmann's side won't go much further. They have been shorn of their best attacking talent, with Timo Werner choosing to complete his switch to Chelsea instead of staying on for the UCL. This is a hammer blow for a side that has already struggled in 2020 - RBL dropped points in 10 of their 17 league matches since the winter break, and while they don't lose many matches, they haven't been winning enough either.

Zidane's men are the sharks in the tank

Real Madrid - 32.00 to win the Champions League
Given that Zinedine Zidane has already led Real Madrid to Champions League glory three times as a coach and is on course to secure his second La Liga title, it seems silly to completely dismiss his chances of salvaging this season's campaign. Real are behind the 8-ball after losing 2-1 at home to Manchester City in the last 16, but if they could turn that tie around, they would then be contenders to win the whole shebang.
Karim Benzema is having a stellar season in attack, Eden Hazard hasn't always sparkled but is fit after a series of injury problems, and Casemiro has been outstanding in midfield. With Thibault Courtois, Raphael Varane and Toni Kroos also performing well, Real have a core group that could power them to glory if they pass that first test against City.

Can Gattuso's redemption story continue?

Napoli - 70.00 to win the Champions League
When Gennaro Gattuso stepped down as coach of his beloved Milan last year, having failed to qualify for the Champions League, he waived a sizeable bonus so that his backroom staff could be adequately compensated. Although he is a hot-tempered and demanding coach, he is seen as a man of integrity. His arrival at Napoli in December to replace Carlo Ancelotti raised eyebrows, and there were doubts over whether he could turn their season around, with many of his new charges in dispute with the club's power-brokers.
The improvement has been impressive. Napoli beat Juventus and their old coach Maurizio Sarri on penalties in the Coppa Italia final, winning a major trophy for the first time since 2014. After a sticky start, Gattuso has won most of his Serie A matches in charge, boosting the club's chances of finishing in the top five. With Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and a fit-again Arek Milik, Napoli have the attacking quality to cause problems for teams, but they have to beat Barcelona first.

Aggrieved Lyon unlikely to progress

Lyon - 100.00 to win the Champions League
Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas isn't used to failure, and he isn't used to not being able to negotiate his way to what he wants. Not only did Lyon fail to qualify for Europe through Ligue 1, but they failed in their legal bid to have the cessation of the domestic French season overturned. Just two routes into European competition now remain for Les Gones - they have to win the Champions League, or beat PSG in the final of the Coupe de la Ligue. If they come up short, they face a first season without European competition since 1997.
The chances in the UCL are incredibly slim. Lyon had a catastrophic season by their lofty standards, and the hiring of inexperienced coach Sylvinho at the start of the campaign was a mistake. He didn't last long, and the unpopular Rudi Garcia has been trying to sift through the wreckage since. Although the 1-0 first-leg win over Juventus was the highlight of the season, I can't see a repeat in Turin. I think it'll be one and done for OL.

Chelsea face Mission Improbable

Chelsea - 300.00 to win the Champions League
There's a lot to like about Frank Lampard's Chelsea, but after Bayern Munich wiped the floor with them at Stamford Bridge, there's just no way I can see them overturning a 3-0 deficit in Bavaria. Bayern are in stunning form, and Chelsea's lack of clean sheets this term suggests they have no chance of keeping the German champions at arm's length, so they'd probably have to put four or five goals past Manuel Neuer. Their price to win the tournament could be [3000.0] and I wouldn't be tempted.