When the Champions League returned post-lockdown, the one-legged format and general 2020 uncertainty suggested we were ripe for a string of upsets. And while some heavyweights — Manchester City, Juventus, Atletico Madrid — did fall to less illustrious opposition, we ended up with two super clubs in the final: Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.
It is nevertheless a study in contrasts. PSG are in their first final and see it as the next step in the evolution of a super club that, other than its hometown, had nothing super about it until a decade ago. Fuelled by heavy Qatari investment but super-savvy in the marketing department, their rise as a brand has been supercharged.
If PSG are the hot tech stock, then Bayern, for whom this is final no. 11, are the reliable blue chip, long established but, equally, capable of innovating and boosting productivity to stay ahead of the curve. It is simplistic to whittle this down to cliches about German efficiency and intensity on the one side and Gallic flair and inventiveness on the other but, in terms of how the two clubs wish to be seen, it’s probably not far off.
The road to Lisbon
After a rocky start to the domestic campaign that saw manager Niko Kovac replaced by assistant Hansi Flick, Bayern went from strength to strength. Not only did they win the Bundesliga and German Cup (just like last season), they have been on an absolute tear, winning their past 20 games in all competitions (and 28 of their past 29).
They have also won every game they have played in the Champions League — including a dramatic 8-2 thumping of Lionel Messi‘s Barcelona at the quarterfinal stage — and boast a goal difference of plus-34 over nine games, which is frankly absurd.
PSG have been equally dominant in France, winning Ligue 1 as well as both domestic cup competitions. Unlike Bayern, though, they got a legitimate scare in the quarterfinal when they came within seconds of being knocked out by Atalanta, only to be saved by two injury-time goals.
The French league’s decision to stop all operations after lockdown means PSG had a four-and-a-half month layoff before returning to play in late July with the French cup finals and Champions League knockout phase. They have shown no ill effects in terms of results and their most impressive display was in their last game, Tuesday’s 3-0 semifinal win over RB Leipzig.
Decisions, decisions …
Bayern’s road-grading run in the Champions League has come off the back of employing a high press, aimed at disrupting the opposition’s build-up play and winning possession in the opponents’ half. The problem with this approach is that you have to play a “high line” — with central defenders like Jerome Boateng and David Alaba way up the pitch — and that makes you vulnerable to counterattacks.
It happened in the semifinal against Lyon, who could have scored a couple of chances early, and is a greater risk against PSG’s front men; Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are not just fast but extremely gifted. The alternative is sitting deeper defensively and being more patient in the build-up. Bayern can do this too, although they risk losing some attacking oomph.
Because every reaction has a counterreaction, PSG manager Thomas Tuchel will have choices to make in midfield to get the right mix of passers (Leandro Paredes, Marco Verratti) and disruptors (Ander Herrera, Idrissa Gueye). Do the French side take the game to Bayern or do they react? PSG are more comfortable doing the former, but might be better off doing the latter.
Frank Leboeuf says PSG’s front three have to track back and defend to stand a chance against Bayern Munich.
Proving the doubters wrong
Flick was hired on an interim basis and some felt this was going to be a transition year for Bayern, not least because they lost their two most expensive players (Corentin Tolisso and Lucas Hernandez) as well as their starting center-back (Niklas Sule) to long-term injury.
Instead, they regrouped quickly and were dominant, keeping potential distractions like the contractual situation of key players Thiago Alcantara and Alphonso Davies out of their minds. (Incidentally, while Thiago’s future remains undecided, he remains a starter; Davies, meanwhile, signed a new deal in April.)
Star-studded and free-spending, but lacking Bayern’s historical gravitas, PSG were seen by some as nouveau riche arrivistes, a collection of egos and hype, assembled without rhyme or reason, who routinely disappointed in the Champions League knockout stage.
But in contrast to past collapses in second legs, not only have they made it to this season’s final, but they did so showing resilience, teamwork and, yes, even humility in the face of adversity: qualities the critics didn’t believe they had.
Thomas Muller is the Bayern motto — “Mia San Mia” roughly translates as “we are who we are” — made flesh. He can look clumsy or ungainly, but usually outworks and outsmarts everybody else on the pitch and generally does whatever it takes to help his team.
PSG broke the world record by some distance when they did a €222 million deal for Neymar in 2017, and while the Brazilian forward has been criticised for not living up to often unrealistic hype, he has his game face on. His unpredictability and knack for creating something out of nothing make him the sort of threat for which you cannot plan.
Robert Lewandowski has notched an incredible 55 goals in 46 games this season, with his 15 in nine Champions League games leaving him two short of the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2013-14. Having turned 32 on Friday, Lewandowski has guile and experience to go with sterling technique and deadeye finishing, making him the most complete center-forward around.
Given Neymar is 28 and the Messi/Ronaldo stranglehold at the top of the game continues, the mantle of heir apparent as world’s best player has probably moved to Mbappe. Still just 21, he is absolutely deadly in one-on-one situations and plays with a coolness far beyond his years.
Look out for
Former Vancouver Whitecaps winger Davies has been a revelation since switching to left-back and making the position his own, with quickness that allows him to take gambles at both ends of the pitch, which will be critical against PSG’s front men. Davies can become the first Canadian (and only fourth CONCACAF player after Dwight Yorke, Rafa Marquez and Keylor Navas) to become a European champion.
Brazilian defender Thiago Silva turns 36 next month and will be playing his final game for PSG after eight years in the French capital. He is going out with possibly the toughest assignment in world football — shackling Lewandowski — and his leadership and experience will be tested.
The big picture
PSG vs. Bayern is France vs. Germany, with representatives of the countries who won the past two World Cups. But national boundaries are less important these days, as this game shows: Both coaches are German, while Bayern have their share of French players (Hernandez, Tolisso, Benjamin Pavard, Kingsley Coman) and PSG boast German representation (Thilo Kehrer, Julian Draxler).
More significant is the fact that PSG, powered by heavy investment from their Qatari owners, stand on the brink of becoming European champions for the first time, which would further cement their place as continental heavyweights. Their model is a contrast to Bayern, who have long been part of the establishment and are seeking their sixth European Cup success.