It has been 149 days since March 11 – the last time a Champions League ball was kicked – as that night Paris Saint-Germain secured their place in the last. eight and Atletico Madrid stunned Anfield as they knocked out defending champions Liverpool.
On Wednesday, the Europa League resumes with a set of four fixtures which is replicated the following day, while the Champions League takes the prime Friday night spot into the weekend to conclude two unfinished last-16 match-ups.
As of the quarter-final stage, Champions League matches will be split between Benfica’s Estádio do Sport and the Estádio José Alvalade, the home of Sporting Lisbon. Meanwhile, the Europa League quarter-finals, semi-finals and final will be held across four stadiums in Germany with the final in Cologne.
Navigating through the uncertain times that is modern football during a pandemic, clubs have found their usual preparations disrupted as the German clubs have had weeks to prepare since the Bundesliga finished, English sides much less while the French outfits have barely played since March, with only two cup finals due to Ligue 1 being suspended.
Premier League sides possess indifferent challenges upon their return to Europe – with Manchester United boasting a five-goal aggregate lead against LASK, Chelsea having a three-goal mountain to climb against the formidable Bayern Munich, Wolves are level with Olympiacos and it’s still very tight between Manchester City and LaLiga champions Real Madrid.
Here, Sportsmail round up 10 things to look out for as European football returns this August.
Kylian Mbappe’s race against time
The PSG striker is not known for losing many races, more often known for his lightening quick speed, however his race against time to recover from an ankle injury is one he seems destined to lose.
Mbappe suffered a bad ankle injury during the Coupe de France final against Saint Etienne as he was on the end of a horror tackle from Loic Perrin. The centre back was subsequently sent off for the challenge and a 21-man brawl ensued as the Frenchman rolled around in pain.
While PSG will want to believe their talisman can recover from the injury – that he heard crack on his way down, manager Thomas Tuchel admitted the chances are ‘very, very small’.
Mbappe still has until August 12 to get fighting fit, after the Ligue 1 champions secured their place in the quarter-finals before the pandemic caused for the suspension of football.
With Angel Di Maria also suspended for the 90 minutes against Atalanta, it is hardly PSG at full complement to reignite their Champions League bid.
Guardiola’s best chance to win the Champions League
Achieving European glory has been a source of constant frustration for Pep Guardiola during his Manchester City career.
Winning the Champions League is the only accolade he has failed to acquire at the Etihad Stadium and that has, somehow, meant that there are still doubters.
Despite this, the new format of the Champions League means he – just as everyone else – can solely focus on the competition with matches coming thick and fast.
His team have a one-goal advantage ahead of their second leg with Real Madrid, who, if they knock out, would be another huge club no longer between them and Champions League glory.
With no other long cup runs or Premier League title race to deal with City’s squad depth will be key to them succeeding.
Their only notable absentees are Sergio Aguero and Benjamin Mendy for the upcoming Madrid match, however, with the fast-paced nature of this Champions League format, Guardiola will still have the upper hand every time he turns to his bench with quality brimming through the Citizens.
Chelsea need a miracle
After suffering FA Cup defeat just a few days earlier against London rivals Arsenal, the task does not get any easier for Chelsea as they face Bayern Munich in the second leg of their last-16 tie.
Frank Lampard’s side, battered and bruised, have to try and turn around a three-goal deficit after their capitulation at Stamford Bridge in the first match. To make matters worse they have to do it against the Bundesliga champions, who have not lost a competitive match since December 7.
Whilst Chelsea can be pleased with their top four finish in the Premier League this season, at times inexperience and lack of quality in defensive areas has been their downfall.
Having scored a whopping 34 goals from 12 matches since the return, Bayern look like too good a team to be beaten by a Blues side who failed to show their true potential at Wembley.
Atalanta star missing for ‘personal reasons’
Josip Illicic has been one of the key components to Atalanta’s unlikely Champions League charge, but will now not play any part in their quarter-final against PSG due to personal reasons.
The striker, who has scored five goals in the Champions League this season, reportedly travelled to his home country Slovenia to deal with some personal matters as he is not in the right mind-set to play football.
Speaking to Sky Sports Italia, Atalanta head coach Gian Piero Gasperini said: ‘We’re getting closer to the day [of the PSG game]. With each passing day, it is more difficult for us to have Ilicic back. It would be very difficult for him to be with us in Lisbon.’
The Serie A side have been the surprise package of the Champions League this campaign, after knocking out Valencia in the last round with a thrilling 8-4 aggregate victory. Missing Ilicic will be huge for them as he has been their top goalscorer in all competitions.
Barcelona must save their season
The Catalan club may have only lost out in the LaLiga title race to their rivals Real Madrid by five points, but the fallings out off the pitch have left their season looking much more glum and depressing.
Reports in Spain suggest that only Champions League success will save Barcelona boss Quique Setien from being sacked this summer.
All eyes have been on star man Lionel Messi as he is stalling signing a new deal after making his thoughts on some decisions made at the club very public since football returned.
The failure to re-sign his friend Neymar last summer; the scandal of a firm allegedly employed by Barcelona to monitor social media being linked to online accounts that ran negative stories about him and his family, and an attempt by Barcelona Sporting Director Eric Abidal to blame Messi for the dismissal of Ernesto Valverde in January have all irked the club’s greatest player.
With all the drama off the pitch, Barca have lost some of their natural sync and panache on it. Now is the time for action from the players, as they wrestle a 1-1 aggregate score line with Serie A outfit Napoli.
RB Leipzig must adapt to life without Timo Werner quickly
After selling star striker Timo Werner to Chelsea, RB Leipzig are left without their top goalscorer ahead of the biggest European match in the club’s history.
Werner scored four goals along with a couple assists as the Bundesliga side cruised through the group stages and early knockout rounds. They also convincingly beat Tottenham in the last round to reach the quarter-finals, as Werner bagged the decisive penalty in the first leg.
Without him, Leipzig will turn to Patrik Schick to fill the German’s boots with Yussuf Poulsen recovering from an ankle injury. The 24-year-old has had limited chances to feature in the Champions League up until this point, with three appearances made. However, the on loan Roma man has impressed when he’s had his chance in the Bundesliga, with 10 goals from 22 matches.
In the last eight, they face the defensively-sound Atletico Madrid for the two club’s first ever meeting. After Diego Simeone’s side’s heroics against Liverpool, Leipzig without Werner could have their work cut out.
Solskjaer’s selection dilemma against LASK
After a third-placed finish in the Premier League, Manchester United resume their Europa League campaign with high hopes knowing they will be rubbing shoulders with the elite once more next season.
Due to the delayed resumption, United have no other competitions to worry about through August therefore manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could pick his strongest side to face Austrian side LASK in their second leg.
However, with a five-goal swing the Norwegian could afford to give his young players and fringe players some more game time whilst resting his stars and banking on the fact that they can comfortably qualify for the next round.
The match provides a superb opportunity for the likes of Mason Greenwood to get a full match under his belt and allow Brandon Williams to continue gaining experience at the highest level, to name a couple.
Solskjaer also has a tough choice to make with his goalkeeper, as first-choice David de Gea has struggled in the latter stages of the season. Back-up option Sergio Romero has remained patient while his Spanish counterpart continues to make blunders. Romero will feel he now deserves a chance to audition for the No 1 spot next season.
Wolves have the chance to top off a great season
Wolves could end the season now and be proud of their achievements, but they will feel they can make a real mark on the Europa League in the final stages.
They are preparing for a second leg with Olympiacos after the first leg remained a cagey draw as the squad are getting a short, yet deserved break.
From the first whistle in August, Wolves’ schedule has been full with midweek and weekend matches which they have amazingly over-performed in with a very thin squad. They recently passed 365 days since their first 2019-20 match.
No-one has been more impressive than striker Raul Jimenez who scored 17 Premier League goals but more importantly, after scoring six goals during qualification for the Europa League, he scored another three goals along with three assists to help them reach the last-16.
Amid rumours suggesting he could be in line for a move to Manchester United – denied by the club as ‘nonsense’ – the Wolves faithful should not have to worry as Jimenez depicts the perfect professional and will have his mind on beating the Greek outfit and making it to the next round.
Leverkusen must find their focus amid Kai Havertz Chelsea saga
It must be tough to prepare for a big European fixture unaware whether you will have all of your players available for the match. It must be even tougher when it’s your best player linked with a £90million exit.
Bayer Leverkusen wonderkid Kai Havertz is said to be closing in on a huge move to Chelsea despite the fact their season is not yet completed. While the Blues are trying to get the deal over the line in order to strengthen their squad, Leverkusen are left unsure whether they will be at full strength for their second leg against Rangers on Thursday.
The Bundesliga side have a two-goal advantage after a 3-1 victory away at Ibrox thanks to goals from Leon Bailey, Charles Aranguiz and, of course, Havertz.
Whilst Leverkusen boss Peter Bosz is up-to-date with Havertz’s potential exit, he teased both Chelsea fans and Leverkusen fans as to when the deal might get over the line.
He said: ‘I couldn’t say. Perhaps the crucial call will come today, maybe next week, maybe not at all.’
Leverkusen fans will be praying for the ‘maybe next week’, or ‘maybe not at all’ to come true as they are one of the favourites to go all the way in the Europa League.
Bale has given Real Madrid so many memories… time for one more?
Gareth Bale has the potential to be the matchwinner for Real Madrid as they try to swing their tie with Manchester City back in their favour. However, he will struggle to do so from the bench.
The Welsh forward’s antics have become more extreme of late, crossing the line between fair retaliation and closing in on disrespectful behaviour. After his ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid’ fiasco, in which he celebrated Wales reaching Euro 2020 with a flag with those exact words on, it was seen as a dig he was almost allowed to take given the treatment he had received in Madrid.
Since then, joking about falling asleep while on the bench and making it so obvious you do not care during title winning celebrations seems to have tipped most of the Madrid faithful off the edge – including manager Zinedine Zidane.
Despite this, with their one-goal deficit the Madrid boss has no more time to play nice and needs a quality performance and result against a tough City side. Bale can help him do that.
Even if they are motivated by different things – Zidane to win the Champions League and Bale to prove a point that he is wasted on the bench – the outcome would favour both.
Madrid have been missing out on too many goals from wide areas, with Eden Hazard and Vinicius Junior not setting the world alight with their goal return. It is highly unlikely Bale will start in Manchester but he could come off the bench and provide one more moment of magic for Los Blancos.
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