By James Reid
When this season’s Champions League kicked off in June 2019 with a match between Tre Penne of San Marino and Santa Coloma of Andorra, no one could have foreseen that we’d still be playing 14 months later.
Then again, few things in 2020 have panned out as one might have expected. This year’s Champions League has been no exception.
Not least because of the change of format that reduced the remainder of the knockout stages to one-legged ties. The football provided plenty of shocks too.
Few, if any, would’ve had Bayern and PSG down as their two finalists at the start of the season. Even fewer when Bayern were beaten 5-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt, sacked their manager and replaced him with someone, Hansi Flick, who’d never managed in the Champions League before.
PSG too, despite their riches and their ability to boast mercurial talents such as Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, were unlikely to be anyone’s favourites for the crown given their perennial and at times incredulous, defeats in recent years.
There have been plenty of other shocks and surprises too. Only one previous finalist, Bayern, made up the four semi-finalists. Only two previous winners made it to the quarter-final stage.
Clubs like Atalanta and RB Leipzig have brought a refreshing change in personnel to this year’s competition, while more favoured sides such as Real Madrid and Manchester City were knocked out by surprise semi-finalists Lyon.
Some things, however, don’t change. For all of the romance of a side like Atalanta’s run to the quarter-final, it remains that the Champions League is a competition won almost always by the very richest clubs.
Both clubs represent the dominance of wealth that is typical of modern football. Both are by far the wealthiest club in their domestic leagues Both their recent volume of league titles reflects that.
However, the two clubs, though both wealthy and perennial winners in recent seasons, come from very different histories.
German giants Bayern Munich are making their 11th final appearance after an absence of seven years. It is a competition they have won five times already, the joint-fourth most of all-time. By comparison, this is PSG’s first appearance in Europe’s showpiece event.
The final then is a tale of old money versus new money. The established European giant against the up and coming power. This is reflected in the tactical composition of the game.
Bayern go into the match as favourites, having steamrollered their way through the competition thus far. This included the 8-2 destruction of Barcelona; a defeat so seismic that the Spanish club is now in seemingly existential crisis.
The Bavarians, however, looked slightly less impressive in their semi-final victory over Lyon. Though on paper a 3-0 victory looks comfortable, the French side caused problems for Bayern that had not really been seen up until this point. Had Lyon been more clinical in the first twenty minutes then it may well have been a different story.
This will give hope to PSG who have greater attacking talent at their disposal than their compatriots. The attacking triumvirate of Mbappé, Neymar and Di Maria seem particularly well skilled to exploit Bayern’s high defensive line, which was caught out on several occasions against both Lyon and Barcelona.
This poses a potential problem for Bayern manager Hansi Flick. Bayern’s full backs, especially Alphonso Davies, have been key to their attacking output this season. However, Flick may be tempted to adjust the defensive line in order to try and nullify the threat of PSG’s front three.
The threat to Bayern’s back line will hinge on PSG’s ability to win the ball back high up the pitch or to transition quickly from defence to attack in order to exploit any potential space in behind the Bayern backline.
This poses a question for PSG boss Thomas Tuchel who’s main selection headache rests on his choice of midfield. It is an area where the former Borussia Dortmund manager has a plethora of options. There is also the risk that he may be caught in two minds also.
Tuchel may be inclined to deploy a more combative midfield combination. Thiago Alcantara has the rare ability to dictate an entire game, meaning the German may wish to deploy the likes of Ander Herrera or Idrissa Gueye to disrupt the Spaniard’s rhythm.
However, the risk is that such a midfield would provide too little creativity. While they may provide greater solidity in keeping the attacking talents of Bayern at bay, there will come a point where PSG may need a tad more creativity in order to actually win the game.
Thus, it is likely that a more creative force such as Leandro Paredes, or even the returning from injury Marco Verratti, may be deployed. Paredes in particular may be key to exploiting any space in behind the Bayern backline.
It will be a close game to call. Bayern are rightly favourites, but not perhaps by as much as some may think. PSG’s front three alone are enough to cause any defence problems, especially one that has looked as vulnerable against pace in behind as Bayern’s has in the last two rounds.
Bayern though, have attacking prowess of their own. In Robert Lewandowski they have Europe’s finest number nine, while Serge Gnabry has been electric all season, and in particular since the restart.
The indomitable Thomas Müller is back to his best, recently breaking the Bundesliga record for most assists in a season. Stopping him will be crucial to PSG’s chances. Bayern have scored over 150 goals this season with Müller at the heart of their attacking play.
It will not be straightforward, finals seldom are. These are two clubs who are perennial winners. Both have world-class attacking line-ups capable of winning any game on their own. It may be the case then, that victory will go to the defence that holds up the best.
They say that defences win leagues, but they might just win tournaments too.
Image: Rafael Henrique Serra via Wikimedia Commons