The Champions League quarter-finals starts with a bang as Atalanta and Paris Saint-Germain travel to Lisbon for a one-legged tie on Wednesday.
It’s mid-August, and the Champions League quarter-finals have not even begun; these genuinely are strange times. Nevertheless, the first of the lot is upon us on Wednesday night as Paris Saint-Germain and Atalanta get ready to lock horns at Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica in Lisbon.
Things did not start well for Atalanta, who were run over in their first three games in the competition, losing to Dinamo Zagreb, Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk. The Italian outfit required a change of fortune and as luck would have it, they got it.
They went unbeaten in their next three games against the same opponents, drawing against City and scoring a total of five unanswered goals past Shakhtar and Dinamo, becoming the only other team apart from Newcastle United to qualify out of their group after losing their first three games.
Their incredible run was carried out into the Round of 16, where they faced Valencia – a tie which was called the best possible draw for both of the clubs. It ended up becoming entirely one-sided and an absolute treat for neutrals as Atalanta smacked eight goals past Valencia over two legs, winning 8-4. Josip Ilicic ended up scoring five of them.
PSG, on the other hand, were relatively untroubled in the group stages, registering five wins and one draw. The best of the lot came against Real Madrid at Parc des Princes, winning 3-0. They qualified from the group with the third-highest goals scored (17) and fewest goals conceded (2). But they had bigger fish to fry, after getting drawn against an in-form Borussia Dortmund.
After an underwhelming first half in the Signal Iduna Park, fans were treated to three goals within the space of eight minutes. The first of the lot was scored by Erling Braut Haaland, cancelled out by Neymar in the 75th minute. The Norwegian was having none of it and struck a lightning bolt of a shot from outside the box which reached the back of the net before you could see it.
The second leg was easier this time for the team from the French capital, who made no mistake in the second half after taking a 2-0 lead by the end of the first, cementing their place in the next round. The Hard Tackle now takes a closer look at both sides ahead of this much anticipated clash.
Team News & Tactics
Gian Piero Gasperini has only one significant concern ahead of the game, which comes in the form of his Champions League top scorer Josip Ilicic. Ilicic failed to make the squad of any Atalanta game since the draw against Juventus one month ago. Recent reports suggest that the Slovenian has returned to his home country for unknown personal reasons and is a doubt for the game.
While Gasperini’s intentions for his defence and midfield are pretty much clear, he has continually shuffled with the offensive structure. That said, we are expecting Duvan Zapata to lead the line, as he has so often done this season, especially in the absence of Ilicic.
Alejandro Gomez will occupy the spot on the left as an attacking midfielder-cum-winger and will be given a free role. Mario Pasalic will mirror the same function on the right.
Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler will retain their spots as the first-choice central midfielders in their famous double pivot. It will, however, not be too surprising to see Ruslan Malinovski start as one of the midfielders, if Atalanta shift to a front two with Gomez and Zapata. The Ukrainian adds the element of surprise thanks to his incredible accuracy with long shots.
Timothy Castagne and the brilliant Robin Gosens will flank the midfield as wing-backs. Still, they will drop back to form a five-man backline, where Rafael Toloi, Jose Luis Palomino and Berat Djimsiti will be waiting in the heart of the Atalanta defence. These defenders will be screening goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini.
Probable Lineup (3-4-2-1): Gollini; Toloi, Palomino, Djimsiti; Castagne, de Roon, Freuler, Gosens; Pasalic, Gomez; Zapata
Paris Saint-Germain have been handed a huge boost as Kylian Mbappe returned to training even though he was ruled out for three weeks after injuring his ankle against Saint-Etienne in the final of the Coupe de France.
That said, they are still without the services of Marco Verratti and Layvin Kurzawa, who are injured, and Angel Di Maria, who is suspended.
Thomas Tuchel is not one to shy away from experimenting with his team structure ahead of a big game in order to squeeze the best out of them. We expect him to go for a 4-3-3 as he will be without some key players.
Keylor Navas will hold the fort between the sticks for the Parisians. Screening him, Presnel Kimpembe and Thiago Silva will start as the centre-halves, while Juan Bernat and Thilo Kehrer will provide width from the back.
Despite losing Verratti, Tuchel has multiple options to choose from in the centre of the park. Marquinhos is expected to occupy the holding midfield role, as he has so often this season, arched by Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera. Leandro Paredes is fit as well and could feature from the bench.
Julian Draxler has been completely overlooked in friendlies and cup finals for PSG since the resumption, playing a sum of 115 minutes in six games and starting none of those games. He also ended the game against Borussia Dortmund on the bench.
The German should miss out again and since the game might have come too soon for Mbappe to feature from the off, Pablo Sarabia should start on the right wing. Neymar and Mauro Icardi will complete the front three for PSG against Atalanta.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Navas; Kehrer, Kimpembe, Silva, Bernat; Gueye, Marquinhos, Herrera; Sarabia, Icardi, Neymar
- This is the first game between Atalanta and Paris Saint-Germain in the history of the two clubs.
- PSG have scored the joint second-highest goals in the UEFA Champions League so far (20) and conceded the fewest (4).
- Josip Ilicic became the oldest player to score a hat-trick away from home in the Champions League when he did so against Valencia; he also became the only player to score four goals away from home.
- PSG have kept a clean sheet in six of their last eight matches in the Champions League. The only time they did not do so was against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.
- Atalanta have scored at least three goals in each of their last three matches in the Champions League (3-0, 4-1, 4-3).
Player to Watch
There will be entire plethora of world-class players on stage in Lisbon, including the likes of Mauro Icardi, Alejandro Gomez, Duvan Zapata, Pablo Sarabia, Kylian Mbappe, Idrissa Gueye, Robin Gosens among so many others. Neymar Jr, however, steers clear of all them.
The Brazilian is unquestionably the best player in the world on his day and the third-best on most days. And this season has proven to be nothing different for him. He has scored 20 goals and provided 9 assists in 21 games across all competitions for PSG so far.
Moreover, his experience and incredible record of 35 goals and 26 assists in 57 appearances in the Champions League is stupendous. Throughout the season, Neymar has had a tendency to start wide but move into the middle with the midfielder and/or the left-back covering for him. This will be useful on Wednesday as Atalanta have struggled to defend against attacks through the middle.
Atalanta 3-4 PSG
With the incredible amount of attacking talent on the pitch, we should not expect anything other than a goal-fest. Both the teams have a tendency to commit numbers while pushing forward and their ability to track back on time could be the only thing that separates them.
It has been all the same for PSG this season, winning the league, scoring a crazy amount of goals, but nobody expected Atalanta to better their incredible 2018/19 where they finished third in the Serie A – 10 adrift of Napoli in second. However, they have ended this season with 20 more goals, with just five points separating them and champions Juventus.
They have come up time and again as giant killers while outscoring the best, but on Wednesday, they might just fall short of the Ligue 1 winners, only because of their lack of experience. The Hard Tackle, thus, predicts a 4-3 win for PSG.