Smoking Your Menthols — Champions League is Back

Illustration for article titled Smoking Your Menthols — Champions League is Back
Graphic: Deadspin; Getty Images

The last stage of finishing the 2019-2020 season is upon us, more than a year after it started. The Champions League returns tomorrow, though in an abbreviated form. The quarterfinals and semifinals will not be two legs, but one-offs in Lisbon. It does change the tournament, and possibly in a major way. We’ll get to that.


There are still four Round-of-16 ties to be settled, as they didn’t get to finish their second legs before the coronavirus shutdown hit. Let’s go through all 12 teams left and rate their chances of winning the whole thing. First off, here’s the draw:

Illustration for article titled Smoking Your Menthols — Champions League is Back
Screenshot: Champions League

Real Madrid

Can They Win It? - Awfully unlikely. While they’re La Liga champions, and they’ve made this competition a habit over the years, they’re down 2-1 to Manchester City from the first leg and have to win by two or win and score more than two goals in Manchester. And this is not the free-scoring Madrid of Ronaldo-past. They scored 16 goals less than Barcelona in La Liga, and their tally of 70 for the season is by far the least of any of the champions of the big five leagues in Europe. They’ll have to go for it from the opening whistle at The Etihad, which will only leave them more open to the Reaper’s scythe that is the Man City counterattack.

That said, it’s not like City’s defense has been anything close to water-tight, and Madrid may be one of the very few teams that can survive City on the counter and in open spaces. They conceded just a simply cruel and unfeeling 25 goals in La Liga all season Though they didn’t really look like that in the first leg, where they were probably lucky to get out only down 2-1.

Even if they were somehow to pull off the mini-miracle of a revival in Manchester, they would have to then negotiate Juventus in the quarters likely and then Munich in the semis, and for a side that just doesn’t score like the others, it feels like tall timber. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are getting up there and keeping up with the more dynamic midfield of the favorites is asking a lot. But unimpressive Madrid squads have won this thing before, infuriatingly.


Manchester City

Can They Win It? They’d better. This is the only trophy they haven’t claimed, and it’s become something of an obsession for both the club and manager Pep Guardiola. Pep hasn’t won the competition outside of Barcelona, and it’s clearly a sore spot for him and the one opening for his critics. Guardiola has had a habit of overthinking it in the knockout stages the past two seasons. He was far too aggressive in the first leg against Liverpool in 2018 and saw them run rampant in the spaces behind for a 3-0 first leg win. He was far too conservative in the first leg against Spurs last season, including not starting Kevin De Bruyne, and walked away with a 1-0 loss that set the Spurs up to play and win on the counter in the 2nd leg (though for Sergio Aguero being infinitesimally offside, they would have beaten Tottenham). Perhaps this year is the one Pep can Goldilocks.


After the restart, when City were on song they were clearly the best team in England, and the only one that looked like it could dance with Munich in Europe. But they also went off song plenty, losing to Chelsea and Southampton in the league and looking woeful when bowing out of the FA Cup to Arsenal. With ties being only single games, they can’t afford a bad day.

The draw hasn’t been kind to them either, as they would likely have to get through both Juventus and Munich just to reach the final.


That said, this team is still the Death Star, and capable of destroying anyone on any day. They have possibly the continent’s best player in De Bruyne, and even if Aguero isn’t fit at the start a front line of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and either of Riyad Mahrez or Bernado Silva is enough to pump five past any team.

Still, their defense has proved decidedly ropey when attacked, and Munich especially will test it. Anything less than winning it will be a failure for this team.



Can They Win It?: Nope. While they do hold a 1-0 advantage from the first leg, they still have to travel to Turin for the second and they haven’t played a match that meant anything in five months. Juve just wrapped up their ninth Serie A title and while this isn’t a vintage Juve side, there’s more than enough to overcome the French side here. This is a team that finished seventh in Ligue 1, after all. Enjoy the trip.



Can They Win It?: Probably not. Yes, they’re JUVENTUS and they have twice-accused rapist RONALDO leading the line, but this is just not the same team as the one that made it to the final a few years ago. Ronaldo is aging, and is basically just a poacher now. He doesn’t contribute as much as he used to in open play.


They’re also decidedly old, which means playing at the pace that City or Munich will require is going to be a real struggle for them. Ronaldo wasn’t enough to save them from a young, spry, and dynamic Ajax side last year, and this team isn’t much different other than being a year older. City or Munich are far more weaponized than that Ajax team as well. Of the four major names that could be on that side of the quarterfinal draw, they might be the weakest. There’s an overhaul coming for this club, and having their skull turned into Nerf products by either Munich or City might just hasten that.


Can They Win It?: Of course not. While getting a 1-1 draw in the first leg at least makes an upset in Barcelona possible, this is not a team in great form. After winning five of six at the beginning of the restart and claiming the Coppa Italia, they limped home with winning just three of their last seven matches. Lorenzo Insigne is doubtful to play, and this is a team that struggles to score.


According to the metrics, they’re Italy’s best defensive team, but were let down by some woeful goalkeeping. Which is a problem, as it will only take one Barca goal for Napoli to have to try and come back, and it’s just not what they’re built for.


Can They Win It?: Only a fool would cast doubt on Lionel Messi, but as god as my witness, I AM THAT FOOL! This team is an utter mess, with the players fighting with coaches and the board and also not playing all that well. They are basically whatever Messi can do himself and create for others. Which can be quite a lot, to be fair, but it’s not enough to get past multiple giants on the way to the trophy.


They’re pretty ragged defensively as Gerard Pique moves into his “yells at cloud” phase of his life. It’s hard to see how this team would keep up with Munich in the quarters and then City in the semis. They’ve also made a habit of epic and hilarious Champions League exits the past two seasons.

Outside of Messi, there just isn’t the quality here that you’re used to. Antoine Griezmann has played like the theater kid in gym class most of the season, Luis Suarez is old, and Sergio Busquets’ waning powers won’t be available for at least the second leg against Napoli. The midfield lacks creativity or steel. It’s kind of startling when you really look at it.


Still, the one-leg format means their flaws won’t be quite as exposed, and Messi can win one game by himself. They’re at least a step behind Munich and City though, and beating both consecutively is too much to ask of even the best ever to do it.


Can They Win It? God no. They’re down 3-0 to Munich from the first leg, their best player Christian Pulisic saw his hamstring turn into a Slurpee last week, and will probably send the kids to Germany. Already on the beach.

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Image: Getty

Bayern Munich

Can They Win It?: Nothing else will do. They have looked like Europe’s best team since November when they fired Niko Kovac and installed Hans Flick as manager. They’ve won their last 17 matches, claiming both the German league and cup. They’ve outscored their opponents 52-12 in that time. They are Galactus.


The only fear for Munich is that the Bundesliga wrapped up much earlier than Italy, Spain, or England, and they haven’t played since the beginning of July. So rust is just about all that can stop them. They do get the comfort of a nice warm-up, completing their Round-of-16 tie against Chelsea already up 3-0. The volume will get turned up somewhat with Barcelona likely in the quarters. But they’ve been miles better than the Catalans and Barca just might want this season to be over. It would appear that the whole thing might come down to the semifinal that’s lining up to be City.

Munich has perhaps the most terrifying attack in Europe. They have one of the best defenses, with David Alaba becoming a revelation as a centre back. Their midfield can do just about anything, as Joshua Kimmich basically throttles matches until they turn a color he finds pleasing.


They’re a team that’s hurt by the single-elimination, because over two-legs their superiority would likely bear out over any team. In one game, they could be undone by a bad deflection or a ref off his meds. Then again, that stuff doesn’t tend to matter when you score five. They’re the favorites for a reason.

RB Leipzig

Can They Win It? Not anymore, sadly. Already through to the quarterfinals, given their attacking prowess and coaching brilliance, they had a puncher’s chance of making some real noise. However, Timo Werner has left and is waiting to debut at Chelsea, and he was the main weapon. And seeing as how their first assignment in Portugal will be the worldly-obstinate Atletico Madrid, they’ll miss Werner’s goals big time (he scored 28 of them this season, and only one other player hit double-digits).


They are on the soft side of the draw, and if they can slip past Atletico they could get to the final after a semi with Atalanta that could possibly redefine the sport with a 12-10 scoreline. But Diego Simeone’s team is the absolute last one you want to play when your main striker has buggered off.

Atletico Madrid

Can They Win It?: Perhaps no team benefits more from the removal of two-legged ties than this particular fist in the face of God. Atletico’s problems in the past, when they haven’t reached a final, is holding out a team over 180 minutes. Last season Juve overcame a two-goal deficit in the second leg. Three years ago they couldn’t keep crosstown rivals Real out in the first leg. But over 90 minutes, there isn’t another team you’d bet on as much to keep a clean sheet as this one.


They’ve already dumped out last year’s champ Liverpool, holding them to just one goal over 180 minutes before striking in extra time. They surrendered just 27 goals all season in La Liga. They haven’t lost since the season restarted, and have scored in every match.

They’re on the easier side of the draw, first having to get past Leipzig without Werner and then either another upstart in Atalanta or a Paris Saint-Germain team that hasn’t played in five months, might not have Kylian Mbappe, and is always a half-step from becoming Mr. Bill in Europe. Whether it’s City, Munich, or Juve waiting in the final, they won’t give two shits because they’d back themselves to frustrate, stonewall, and turn back Mongolian hordes.


If there’s ever a time to overturn the two finals they’ve lost, this looks like it. It won’t be entertaining, their manager and team will sneer and yell their way through it, but this might just be their type of party. Even if they’re the ones putting their dick in the punch.


Can They Win It?: We all should hope so. They will be the most entertaining team left by some distance. Atalanta scored 98 goals in Serie A this season, trailing only Munich’s 100 and Manchester City’s 102 in Europe’s big five. Yes, the metrics suggest they outkicked their coverage and got lucky, but that’s also their thing. Even by expected goals, they were clocked at having 10 more goals than anyone else in Italy. Five different players had more than nine goals on the season, and they simply rain down fire from every position and every angle.


More charmingly, in a way, is that they aren’t particularly young and just schooled in some way in an academy. These are castoffs from a lot of other teams that manager Gian Piero Gasparini, himself a reject from bigger clubs, has simply told to go dine in hell and they have. If the Warriors of years past played soccer, they’d be Atalanta.

If there’s darkness on the horizon, it comes with the news that top scorer Josip Illic is likely to miss the quarterfinal through injury. Which would be a shame, as this team deserves a world stage for its simply joyous style of playing. They are on the easier side of the draw as well, and if they can upset an always fragile PSG then a possible semifinal date with Atletico wouldn’t just be a clash of styles, or immovable object and irresistible force and all that, it’ll be the Hadron Collider on a soccer field. With everything being one game, all Atalanta need to do is convert the chances they will create. If teams have a puncher’s chance, Atalanta have a right cross that can cave in anyone’s cheekbone.


Paris Saint-Germain

Can They Win It?: It’s never been about “can” with PSG. They certainly have the talent, and have had for years. It’s more about “will,” in that pretty much every time they get looked in the eye they piss themselves, as months of beating up on Ligue 1 don’t really prepare them for actual tests. It’s also a collection of players that have flocked to Paris to collect outsized checks from the Qatari government, and aren’t really out to prove anything, which doesn’t exactly prepare one to show some mettle.


So yes, if they all come together, PSG can absolutely go toe-to-toe with Munich or City. But it never comes together. To boot, Mbappe looks set to miss at least the quarterfinal against Atalanta, and they’ll need goals against an Italian side that doesn’t give a flying fuck about reputations and is just here to fuck shit up. You go ahead and trust Neymar in a big game and see where that gets you, whatever the marketing campaign tells you.

Maybe they can outgun Atalanta. And maybe they can find a way through against Atletico. And maybe they can summon one performance to overcome City or Munich. The tools are there. But they’ve never done all of those at once, which is why they always end up with their dick in their hands in Europe. And all of this after five months off. Wouldn’t bet on it.

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.