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The Champions League Is Back, And All We Want To Talk About Is Atalanta

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Grace, Ryan, Tony, we’re back to talk about soccer on the eve of the Champions League! Tell me true: How many of you remember where we left off in March? (I do not.)

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): I vaguely remember Marcos Llorente becoming the best striker in the world.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): If I could send you a screenshot of all my browser tabs right now, you would know that clearly I remembered nothing from March.

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I remember Pep Guardiola did all his tinkering against Real Madrid in the first leg, and everyone had the usual takes ready, but it actually worked this time!

tchow: I did remember that Sergio Ramos got a red card. But I had to double check it was from late February and not, you know … the other times.

ryan: Not sure if it was my imagination, but did PSG actually advance past the Round of 16, too?

tchow: Ryan, you weren’t imagining it. I think your brain blocked it out because they eliminated Dortmund, which robbed us all of more Erling Haaland time.

cwick: Well, that’s what’s so crazy about this! Some teams are already in the quarterfinals, and others still have to complete the second leg of their fixtures, just with radically fresher legs. If I’m a Liverpool fan — and, wait, I am — I’d be furious that England didn’t shut down sooner for many reasons, including its loss to Atletico.

grace: I spent that whole game emotionally disconnected because it felt inevitable the Champions League would be canceled, and I was close to being right. But here we are, ready to finish off the tournament as Jürgen Klopp watches on TV.

tchow: You think the end-of-season Liverpool that you saw the past couple of weeks would’ve had a better shot of advancing if they waited till now?

cwick: Good point, Tony.

ryan: I’m glad we’ve already made this about Liverpool.

grace: The trophy is still in Liverpool! You can take as many photos with it as you like until someone wins this!

cwick: So let’s discuss the lay of the land: PSG, RB Leipzig, Atlético Madrid and Atalanta are in the quarterfinals. Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Barcelona still have work to do but, according to our model, are clear favorites to make it to the next round. And Lyon vs. Juventus is the only close fixture remaining (64 percent chance Lyon moves on, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model). What are you going to be watching for on Friday and Saturday?

tchow: I dispute the idea that anyone other than Bayern are clear favorites to advance. I want to talk to whoever makes that FiveThirtyEight model.

grace: I’ll be watching Man City vs. Real Madrid. City can be extremely good or kind of bad, but it’s always fun to watch. Juventus vs. Lyon is just kind of a dull matchup by comparison.

ryan: It’ll be interesting to see Zinedine Zidane try to game-plan a big come-from-behind victory. I don’t think he’s ever had to do that before, and Real’s success this year came from a more defense-oriented approach. He’s also never been knocked out of the Champions League.

grace: Real is probably set up to do well in this tournament … but only if it does the hard part and turns it around against City.

tchow: Yeah, I will be watching the Man City. vs. Real Madrid game closely. The FiveThirtyEight model gives City a 90 percent chance to advance, which is high in my opinion. City won the first leg in Madrid, 2-1, so those away goals are important, but this is still anyone’s game, I think.

ryan: If the Champions League has taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that literally no lead is big enough.

tchow: This is also a very different Real Madrid team than in March. Since the restart, it has won 10 out of its last 11 games and won another La Liga title.

cwick: Tony, in full transparency, I think you have to share the picture of you and your son in coordinated Real Madrid kits. It’s vital context to your analysis.

tchow: You mean this one of me and my son, whom I named Eden?

I promise I am trying to be unbiased here. Maybe Grace and Ryan will tell me I’m wrong.

grace: The model really likes City, and who am I to argue with it, but I really do think the team can be a little lax out of possession in these big games. The FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal was a perfect example when City just got hit so easily. Same with the league game against Chelsea.

ryan: It certainly could happen. City’s defense is good overall, but the few chances it gives up are generally pretty high quality. It’s just that City pretty comprehensively dismantled Madrid on the road in the first leg, and it did it with a not-super-high-possession approach. A similar look in this match should work again.

grace: Zidane tends to be frustratingly conservative in these kinds of games and trusts experienced players, but I really wish he would start both Vinicius and Rodrygo here. I think they’re best off hitting City with speed, and the older guys are short of that.

tchow: There are going to be some big names missing from this matchup, though. And actually, that seems to be a common thread among all of these second-leg matchups. But for Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos is suspended because of that aforementioned red card. Marcelo still isn’t 100 percent. And City will be missing Sergio Agüero due to injury and Benjamin Mendy due to suspension.

ryan: Ramos, who was Madrid’s second-leading goal-scorer in La Liga this season.

grace: If Zidane’s first era was built around Cristiano Ronaldo, then this is kind of Ramos’s team. Horrible to play against and solid.

tchow: Toward the end of the season, Zidane slotted in Éder Militão to pair with Raphaël Varane instead of Ramos, and even though they didn’t lose, let’s just say there were some major gaps in defense.

ryan: That’s why I don’t think Real is really set up to make the comeback. This team just hasn’t scored as much as Real teams of old. Perhaps that’s because of a dialed-back approach that solidified things on the other end, or perhaps it’s because the team spent a ton of money on Eden Hazard, who wore his own jersey fewer times than Tony has this year. But either way, I have a hard time seeing them scoring enough while also not conceding.

cwick: It’s easy to overlook City’s greatness, but this is a team that is the best in the world, according to FiveThirtyEight’s metrics, up an away goal against a team with a lesser offense. I don’t see it all falling apart.

grace: City should be fine.

ryan: Weird shit, though, will happen. That’s sort of the rule of the modern version of the Champions League.

tchow: For what it’s worth, City has never lost a European match when it has won the first leg away. So history should repeat itself here I guess.

grace: Football heritage.

cwick: I am particularly bummed that the Chelsea vs. Bayern match is weighed down by Bayern’s 3-0 advantage. It seemed like the post-restart Chelsea had the offense to really push Bayern, but three away goals is a nearly impossible burden (just a 2 percent chance of advancing). So let’s look beyond this match — and avoid talking about Kepa Arrizabalaga: Who is likeliest to stop Bayern as the tournament goes on?

ryan: It’s gotta be City, right? They’re on the same side of the bracket, so they’ll play before the final.

grace: Whoever wins the City vs. Real Madrid tie is the most likely, but Bayern is still the favorite in my view.

tchow: When Bayern advances, it will play the winner of Barça vs. Napoli. Could either of these teams cause the Bavarians problems?

grace: Messi is Messi, but this is the poorest Barcelona team in over a decade. The way it’s been playing since the restart, I can’t see it. Napoli has improved under Gennaro Gattuso, but we’re still talking about the seventh-place team in Serie A.

ryan: Barça would have a shot because it’s a one-leg tie and it would have the best player on the field. A couple moments of Messi magic would be enough to steal a win. I have some questions about Bayern’s defense, but neither Bayern nor Napoli would really be able to ask them enough over a 90-minute stretch.

grace: Maybe Barcelona should have hired Carlos Bilardo to manage this side and he could’ve drawn up his “defend defend defend, then let the best player in the world do something amazing” plan that won the 1986 World Cup.

ryan: That’s basically the Quique Setien blueprint, but replace “defend” with “pass sideways.”

tchow: Fair. Then I agree. I had my gripes about our model earlier on, but if the question is who will cause Pep Guardiola’s former team the most problems, it’s gotta be Pep’s current team.

ryan: Per FBRef, Bayern allowed the 17th-fewest expected goals in Europe’s Big Five leagues this season — and it played only 34 games, compared with the 38 in most of the other continental competitions. That’s not bad by any stretch, but it’s also not the kind of thing that I would expect to hold up particularly well against City, who have been scoring for fun since the restart.

grace: I think the case for Bayern is that it can go into a slightly different mode in this knockout tournament than when it’s trying to dominate against lesser Bundesliga sides.

ryan: Yeah, a Leon Goretzka-Joshua Kimmich midfield doesn’t seem like it will work as the team gets deeper into this thing.

grace: Bayern manager Hansi Flick was part of Germany’s coaching staff under Jogi Low that won the 2014 World Cup. He’s good at finding creative solutions to problems in the condensed time frame of these tournaments.

cwick: All right, to Juventus-Lyon, which Juve trails 0-1. Neither team has a greater than 10 percent chance of making the semifinals as of right now. What should people watch out for there?

ryan: In a strange turn of events, Juventus has the worst-rated defense, per the FiveThirtyEight model, among all the remaining teams.

tchow: That defense allowed 43 goals in Serie A this season, the most the team has allowed since 2011.

grace: I’ll be watching whether Juventus is still suited to these kinds of comebacks under Maurizio Sarri. It feels like he’s made the team a little bit worse at the traditional Juventus qualities of keeping it tight and always finding a result, but without a complete enough version of his possession-based style to make up for it.

ryan: The FiveThirtyEight model really doesn’t like Juventus: 20th in the world, behind the likes of Leicester, Wolves and RB Salzburg.

grace: Lyon had a weird year in Ligue 1, finishing seventh, but it had the second-best xG differential behind PSG, according to FBRef, so it might cause more problems than you think.

tchow: Uh … both seventh-place teams in Serie A and Ligue 1 are still in this competition. Maybe this being their only hope of more Champions League football next season will make both Lyon and Napoli overperform?

grace: The model thinks Atalanta is the best team in Italy, so it is perfect.

ryan: My only issue with the model is that it doesn’t think Atalanta is the best team in the world.

tchow: Atalanta vs. Bayern would be quite a final.

grace: I really want to believe Atalanta can do it.

ryan: It’s probably not gonna have Josip Iličić, which is not great. But Atalanta absolutely can do it. It’s on the “easy” side of the bracket. Three wins, and it’s champs.

cwick: It’s telling that we quickly moved from discussing Juventus-Lyon to extolling Atalanta.

ryan: Neither team has a greater than less-than-1-percent-chance of winning the whole thing!

cwick: Let’s finally alight on Napoli vs. Barcelona. Both teams are tied 1-1 after the first leg. We spent a chat earlier this summer ragging on Barcelona, but is it so bad as to not be able to get past Napoli?

tchow: Napoli has been undefeated in this year’s Champions League! It drew with Liverpool in Anfield back when Liverpool was still trying.

ryan: It also had a different coach back then.

grace: I think it should be capable of hanging on with that away goal. I just hope nobody watches expecting a thriller.

ryan: I think the key for Barça here is that it didn’t win the first leg. It’s not good at holding onto leads. Brilliant move to go for the 1-1 draw.

grace: The talk in the Catalan press is that Barcelona intends to switch to a back three with just Messi and Luis Suárez upfront.

tchow: Also, going back to injuries/suspensions, this is another game in which the players missing out could be the story. Barcelona won’t have Arturo Vidal or Sergio Busquets due to suspension, and I think Ousmane Dembélé may still be recovering from injury. Missing Vidal in particular could be really bad for Barcelona. He’s been great.

ryan: The team isn’t as good as it used to be, but with Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli does have the kind of attacking talent that could steal a game like this.

tchow: Here’s hoping Insigne is healthy enough to play this week.

grace: Even if Napoli pulls this off, I’m not convinced it’ll be able to do something on the “hard” side of the draw.

ryan: Agreed — it’s a much more boring, much less capable Napoli side than the team of the past few seasons.

grace: It’s trying to become the poor man’s Juventus as Juventus tries to become the rich man’s Napoli.

cwick: We aren’t going to be assembled again until just before the Champions League final, so I thought we could do a little bit of spitballing (unlike the rest of these chats) and predict who we’ll say is the greatest player in the world in two weeks’ time. Ryan, since this is your specialty, I thought you could lead us.

ryan: It’s Duvan Zapata time, baby!

grace: This is the kind of big-game setting where the space interpreter thrives so I’m going to throw out Thomas Müller as a guy everyone might be raving about once again after this.

tchow: If we’re going Champs League focused, I want to take this time to introduce everyone to Canada’s and Bayern’s Alphonso Davies if they haven’t seen him already. Remember the name.

ryan: That’s very Wenger-esque of you, Tony. Spotting a prospect after he’s already broken out.

tchow: Like Wenger, I’m gonna say I had my eye on him forever. I’m just telling you now.

grace: Tony is now joining FiveThirtyEight.ca.

cwick: The Canadian model has everyone with an equal shot of winning.

tchow: Chad, if we had known we wouldn’t chat again until just before the final, we would’ve suggested to chat about nothing else but the Atalanta vs. PSG quarterfinal match instead. What a missed opportunity here.

cwick: Whenever Neymar loses it’s cause for an emergency chat.

grace: Atalanta could have three Neymars and they couldn’t resist the unstoppable force from Bergamo.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.

Chadwick Matlin is a deputy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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