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Sizing up Barcelona’s possible rivals in the UEFA Champions League

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Who do you prefer: Atalanta, Chelsea, Lyon, Napoli, or Tottenham?

FBL-EUR-C1-DRAW Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Having won their UEFA Champions League group, and given they cannot face Spanish teams nor the one from their own group, there are five possible opponents for FC Barcelona in the next round. Atalanta, Chelsea, Olympique Lyonnais, Napoli, and Tottenham Hotspur are the eligible runners-up from which one will be randomly drawn to face the Catalans.

Let’s take a look at these teams.

Atalanta

Atalanta may be the least famous club of the lot, but they want to make a name for themselves. The Italians are 6th in Serie A and the league’s highest scoring team. Under Gian Piero Gasperini, the team has invested heavily by their standards to build a team that can regularly qualify for Europe. They finished 3rd last season. He prefers a three-man line that supports an attacking style. His high press is physically demanding for his team, but very effective when their stamina levels do not deplete too quickly. They also prefer a possession style and building from the back. Duván Zapata, their top scorer last season, was injured on international duty and has been out longer than expected. Still, he should be ready to go next year. But no matter - Atalanta have simply replaced him with another Colombian striker, Luis Muriel, who is scoring goals for fun as well. He’s the league’s fourth-best top scorer. Their playmaker is Alejandro “Papu” Gómez a diminutive but very skillful Argentine. Their other key players are Josip Iličić, a Serbian winger with 5 goals, and Mario Pašalić, an important part of their engine room. Atalanta rely on their defenders such as Berat Djimsiti to build from the back and defend tricky situations when they are caught out without many numbers back in defense.

Chelsea

The English team are an old nemesis of the Catalans’. They famously eliminated Barça on the road to their first and only Champions League win, while Barcelona got the better of them on the way to their Champions League win in 2009. Barcelona brushed Chelsea aside in 2017 with a 4-1 aggregate in the last tie between the sides. The Blues are 4th in the English Premier League as things stand. Tammy Abraham is their main scorer, with 11, and earning perhaps the most plaudits. Christian Pulisic is another standout player; the American has 5 league goals so far. From then, a lot of players return from that 2017 meeting, like N’Golo Kanté, Marcos Alonso, César Azpilicueta, Pedro, and Willian, who is seemingly linked with a move to Barça every transfer window now. They are showing signs of improvements after a rough start under Frank Lampard’s first year as the team’s manager, having captained them for years. They have shifted away from former manager Maurizio Sarri’s high possession style, but only a bit. They are still a team that likes to play short passes out of their standard 4-3-3 formation with Jorginho at the fulcrum. They have been caught out often though, allowing 24 goals in 16 matches, a poor return for a top four team.

Lyon

A foe that Barcelona defeated 5-1 on aggregate last season, Lyon are a team that could spring a surprise. Last season, the French team overperformed and caught the attention of Europe in the process. The team lost some of their biggest names in the summer - Ferland Mendy went to Real Madrid (second-highest fee ever received in team history), Tanguy Ndombele to Tottenham (highest fee ever received in team history), and Nabil Fekir to Real Betis. But they did reinvest, actually breaking their transfer record for Jeff Reine-Adélaïde from Angers. And if that was not enough, their second highest fee ever paid was this past window as well - Joachim Andersen from Sampdoria - and so was their fourth highest - Thiago Mendes from Lille. Beijing Guoan poached their successful manager, Bruno Génésio, as well. Former Barcelona fullback Sylvinho was appointed in his stead, but let go after poor results and replaced by Rudi Garcia. His appointment seems to have righted the ship and they are in 6th place now. They have not struggled for goals, in fact they are the third-highest scoring team in Ligue 1. Their key man is Memphis Depay, who has reinvented himself as one of the stars of Ligue 1 after a disappointing spell at Manchester United. Their top scorer is Moussa Dembélé - not the Belgian who played for Tottenham, mind.

Napoli

Once known as the team that would compete with - and ultimately lose against - Serie A to Juventus, Napoli have had a rough campaign so far. It was perhaps not too surprising they sacked their coach, Carlo Ancelotti, this week. The tough-minded Gennaro Gattuso replaced him, which could be a change from the days under Sarri in which they were known for their possession-based, attacking football. It remains to be seen how Napoli adjust under Gattuso, although their key players are known. Arkadiusz Milik, Dries Mertens, and Lorenzo Insigne have been the team’s key men in attack for years and they are still now. You can also add pacy Mexican winger Hirving Lozano and veteran Spanish striker Fernando Llorente to the mix. Finally, the team also invested in defender Kostas Manolas, from AS Roma, famous for a goal against Barcelona. Anther key player: Fabián Ruiz, a midfielder who is being linked to Barcelona and Real Madrid, among others. There is a suspicion that this wonderfully talented team just needs the right discipline. Gattuso is famous for his playing days as one of Europe’s toughest destroyers. Will they be as good as the Lazio of old under Gattuso?

Tottenham Hotspur

After reaching last year’s final, Mauricio Pochettino was sacked, somewhat shockingly, this season for a run of poor results. In his place, José Mourinho has been appointed. Tottenham are in 7th now, with a team that can score goals but lacks a bit of defensive steel. Mourinho in theory is just the man for such a task. While the team has reeled off a few good results since his appointment, they still concede many. Their 3-1 loss to Bayern Munich showed there still was a gap between them and Europe’s elite, which was not necessarily true last season. However a 5-0 win over Burnley showed that this team still has loads of quality. Spurs have kept the same core group of very talented men around for a while, and most should be known to football fans. Son Heung-Min, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Serge Aurier, Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Sissoko, Davinson Sánchez, Harry Winks, Lucas Moura, Toby Alderweireld, Hugo Lloris, and Christian Eriksen, to name some, are still part of this team. You can also add Ndombele from Lyon and Giovanni Lo Celso from Betis as a new part of this puzzle. Lloris, the captain, has been out since October but is expected back next year. A lot of players are just not performing like they used to, for whatever reason. Mourinho needs to sort through his team and figure out who is not who they used to be last season, and either replace them or find a way to get them back in form. The classic tropes about Mou are that he can plan a two-legged affair like few others, that he can organize a defense like few others, and that he can kill you on the break. Can this Tottenham, which still boasts a fearsome squad, make another run?