This weekend brings the return of the UEFA Champions League, a year-long tournament reserved for the best clubs across Europe. COVID-19 shut down the tournament in March just as the elimination rounds were heating up. 

After starting with 32 teams last fall, the Round of 16 was put on hold before completion. While some teams, notably, the runaway champion of the English Premier League, Liverpool, have already been eliminated, Friday and Saturday will feature four games to determine the quarterfinal participants. 

If you’re worried about star power without Liverpool, though, fear not. Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, Ronaldo’s Juventus, and Neymar’s Paris Saint-Germain are in the tournament and each has a lot to prove. Manchester City has been dominant in England for a decade, but that hasn’t translated to Champions League success. And the German giant Bayern Munich is flying higher than anyone, having recently won the Bundesliga, their domestic league for the eighth straight season. 

So is This on TV? How do I Watch? 

Once the elimination rounds begin, the Champions League usually goes with a home-and-home format of two matches between teams. For example, the German club Borussia Dortmund hosted Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in the first match of the Round of 16 and won 2-1. But on the return leg in Paris, PSG outscored Dortmund 2-0, and thus have already advanced to the quarterfinals with the aggregate win of 3-2. 

Juventus and Lyon, Real Madrid and Manchester City, Napoli and Barcelona, and Bayern Munich and Chelsea are set to play on Friday and Saturday. Whoever wins those ties will advance to the quarterfinals with the aforementioned PSG, Atletico Madrid, Atalanta of Italy, and RB Leipzig of Germany. That’s when things get different. Because of COVID-19, the final eight teams will then go to Lisbon, Portugal for a single-elimination mini-tournament. 

The question of how to watch in the United States has also grown complicated. TNT and the Bleacher Report streaming app had been the home of the Champions League, but opted out of their contract. In has stepped CBS, who will show a few matches on the CBS Sports Network, including the final on August 23rd, and stream all matches on CBS All Access. Given the lack of sports on television, you’d hope for a bigger platform for soccer’s biggest stage, but at least all games will be streamable—TNT did not offer that assurance. 

Who are the Favorites? 

Okay, the logistics are boring. Who is going to win this thing? We’ll get into Ronaldo and Messi’s situations below, but very few experts would consider either of their teams the favorites. That’s going to make the next couple weeks really fun—it’s truly wide open. The betting markets have Manchester City and Bayern Munich as the most likely teams to bring home the hardware, with PSG right behind them. 

Complications abound—the French League never picked back up after shutting down due to the virus. France’s Ligue 1 is generally considered to be an inferior league to the quality of play you see in England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and even Italy’s Serie A, and the German Bundesliga. PSG has spent all the money in the world on talent like Neymar and Mbappe (who was recently injured and may be unavailable) but haven’t been able to see success in Europe. This could be the year but they haven’t played consistently since the shutdown. 

Bayern has probably been the most consistent squad in Europe in 2020, and won both their domestic league and tournament—if they win the Champions League it’d be highly sought after “treble,” where you’ve won all three major trophies in a calendar year. Robert Lewandowski may have won the Ballon D’Or, the trophy handed out to FIFA’s international player of the year, had they not cancelled the award because of COVID-19. He’s been a goal-scoring machine. 

On the flipside, Manchester City is probably the least likeable team left (Ronaldo’s Juventus has a case here, too). Plucked from relative English soccer obscurity by an owner with unlimited funds, they are now an international giant. City received a two year ban from Champions League that would have gone into effect next season for functionally cheating their way around the European version of a salary cap, Financial Fair Play, but have recently had that punishment lifted. With soccer, you can usually assume corruption of some sort. The best case to be made for pulling for City is that Liam Gallagher of Oasis fame is a fan. His Twitter shots at Liverpool, generally involving questionable levels of sobriety, are always fun. Regardless of how you feel about them, though, they remain one of a handful of superteams and finished a strong second in England to Liverpool. This could be the year they finally get the trophy. 

What’s the Deal With Ronaldo and Messi? 

We’ll start with Messi, who is still almost certainly the best player in the world at age 33. He became the first player in the history of La Liga to score 20 goals and hand out 20 assists in a single season, but therein lies the heart of the problem in Barcelona—he’s required to do everything. The Catalan club has been pinching pennies and last summer’s addition of Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid hasn’t worked out. After a second place finish in league play, Barcelona could really use another Champions League trophy, but virtually no one is counting on it. 

Messi Barcelona Dortmund 2019 UEFA
Image via Getty/TF-Images

Over in Italy, Ronaldo still appears to be Ronaldo. He scored 30 goals in league play for Juventus, and whoscored.com’s advanced metrics identified him as the top player in Serie A. Juventus won their ninth straight Scudetto, the trophy awarded to Italy’s champion. Below the surface are doubts, though. Most pressing, Juventus are down 1-0 to the heavy underdog Lyon before they can even qualify for the quarterfinals in Lisbon. The team won the Italian league, but most observers think it was the weakest Juventus team in years. There are real questions as to whether or not the club’s investment into Ronaldo was worth it, as it’s kept the team from investing in the midfield where they’ve been weak since losing Paul Pogba to Manchester United. 

These are, perhaps the two greatest players of all time, and they’re still playing at a high level. No one should count them out, and they are still appointment television. 

Is There a Plucky Underdog? 

Yes. If you’re looking for a team to casually get into, the clear answer is Italy’s Atalanta. They check every box. 

  • They score a ton of goals. They give up a ton of goals. In group play, they actually lost to Manchester City 5-1 and then somehow still qualified for the knockout stages. En route to a third place finish in Serie A, Atalanta scored 98 goals in 38 games. Juventus won the league and scored just 76. The style of play is great for casual fans.
  • Atalanta is the equivalent of Boise State football breaking their way into the BCS and knocking off teams like Oklahoma. The team paid their players 36 million Euro this season. They’ll play Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinal, who had a humble wage bill of 337 million Euro. You read that right—PSG spends 337 million euro on their players, while Atalanta spends just 36 million. Atalanta making it this far is an enormous story, and most experts think they have a shot to continue their run. 
  • Finally, they hail from Bergamo, which was ground zero for the Italian COVID-19 outbreak. Many cases were in fact traced to the celebrations following their win over Valencia in the Round of 16. If they can continue to play at a high level it would be especially meaningful to a community that has suffered like few others during the pandemic. 

So What’s Going to Happen? 

I can’t shake the sense that this is Manchester City’s year. They listened all year to everyone talk about how good Liverpool was, and the Premier League title race was all but over by the time Christmas rolled around. They know they will be back in the Champions League next year, which might take some pressure off of them to win right now. They haven’t secured their spot in the quarterfinals yet, and will host Real Madrid with a 2-1 lead on Friday. If they get past the Spanish giants, they’d be my pick to win the trophy.