PSG face Bayern Munich in most finely balanced, mouth-watering Champions League final in years


Old money meets new money in a final under the most peculiar of circumstances

While the public stance from the Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain players is that they are now used to the circumstances, some of those who have played in a Champions League final before have been privately discussing the differences.

It doesn’t feel like this fixture should.

There is a distinctive and precious atmosphere to a city on the weekend it hosts a Champions League final. It feels the centre of the world, all the more so because of the tens of thousands supporters that have congregated in hope. There’s a charge to the air. There’s a feeling of life.

This weekend, Uefa still have their giant European Cup stood in the centre of Rossio Square, but there are only ever around 20 people around it. It is… poignant.

The host city would normally attract a who’s who of elite football, all the best hotels fully occupied, all the best restaurants impossible to get reservations in. On Thursday night, Nasser Al-Khelaifi and the rest of the PSG contingent could freely go to the JNcQUOI Asia restaurant on Libertade to watch the Bayern semi-final, nobody to even look at them coming out.

European football’s marquee match offers marked reminders of just how alien this whole situation remains. Future footage of this final will be a testament to that. Even in their bio-secure hotels, the players can’t help notice the difference, the lack of charge. The final could almost be anywhere.

That sense of dislocation is oddly appropriate, because this is a landmark final in another sense. It represents the culmination of an era, and not just for PSG. It is where football has been going for some time, attracting greater and greater interest from more powerful spheres.

So, this season, European football’s marquee match has been almost wholly appropriated by Qatar. Bayern are one of the football clubs the country has its strongest commercial relationship with. PSG are an outright state political project.

The fact the latter have finally made a Champions League final is thereby a historic landmark, but not one the game should be proud of. Even worse is the knowledge – backed up by many sources – that Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia are looking on at this with envy.

It is worthy of reflection that club football’s most prestigious and sanctified match can be seen as a political weapon in an economic cold war in the gulf. This match has dimensions way beyond Franco-German friendship.

As incongruous as it is to shift from that to football, the political context greatly influences what the teams – and the game – will actually look like.

This match is the latest in a series of Champions League finals between two super clubs, but perhaps the first between old money and new money. Even Chelsea-Bayern in 2012 took place as that era was starting to form, and felt a lower level to this.

Both PSG and Bayern now have revenues of over €600m, and wage bills of over €350m, if from different financial structures.

The great seduction is that all that has set up what is possibly the most finely balanced and mouth-watering final in years, perhaps since 2009. That was a largely one-sided Barcelona win over Manchester United, and in-keeping with how the final hasn’t had a truly good game since 2008, and hasn’t had a great one since 2005. There have been great performances, sure, but no truly intense and involving contests. This might just be that.

There are few in history that have had so many storylines, and so many exceptional players on such excellent form.
The latter forms one of those stories, as the entire game is underlaid by the possibility that this may represent the first final of the post-Messi-Ronaldo era, as well as the battle to be their successor.

Qatar’s infinite resources have allowed PSG to bring two of the prime candidates – Neymar and Kylian Mbappe – into one team, in what might be one of the deepest squads the game has ever seen.

Bayern’s old money – and wealth of modern sponsors, including Qatar Airways – has meanwhile allowed them to put together a truly complete team, that radiates quality in all areas.

That is another element elevating this game. No two finalists have ever gone into this fixture on better form collectively, and no finalist has ever gone into it on form as good as Bayern. The German champions haven’t lost any fixture at all since 7 December, winning 28 and drawing one of their 29 games since. That has seen them win 20 successive matches in all competitions, and 10 successive matches in the Champions League. They were the first ever team to go into the final with a perfect record from the previous rounds.

Such figures in themselves reflect an imperfect situation. They’re also on runs as regards their league titles. The domestic dominations of Bayern and PSG are the worst examples of the financial disparity destroying the game.
It is indicative of where football is that one of them will win the ninth European treble in history, and it just doesn’t seem noteworthy. For Bayern, it would be their second in seven years. For PSG, it would be a quadruple.

None of that matters as much as the European Cup itself.

The domestic trophies are now seen as a given. The Champions League is what has eluded them, what represents the great challenge.

Bayern did win it as part of that treble seven years ago and are thereby aiming for their sixth, but they have lost as many of their 10 finals as they’ve won. It’s fostered a certain institutional neurosis around the fixture. Even 2013 was preceded by the greatest trauma of all, from that match in 2012. They conceded a stoppage-time goal as in 1999, but this one in their home stadium, when they seemed even greater favourites.

It is precisely the lack of such history that has also created a neurosis for PSG. You couldn’t have a better illustration of old money and new money than the difference in records. Five previous wins and 10 finals against zero and zero.

PSG’s complexes go further back than the final, however, and that is why it is hoped just getting to the semi-finals alone proves a significant psychological step.

Even the last-16 win over Borussia Dortmund was certainly seen as a landmark for them. It does raise another question about this game.
Both have been convincing in different ways in each individual game, but have they really been tested against a team of equal quality? That’s much harder to say.

That’s also what can make truly 50-50 games like this even more unpredictable. Minor differences can suddenly become massive purely because teams aren’t accustomed to having their fracture lines tested.

And both have those fracture lines, no matter how small.

PSG’s are between a pedestrian midfield and electric attack, but also out wide. If Joshua Kimmich surges past Neymar, the Brazilian won’t track back, which will leave Kimmich, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry up against Presnel Kimpembe and Leandro Paredes. The numbers don’t add up to anything good for the French champions there.

Bayern’s fracture line is behind that defence. It has repeatedly appeared vulnerable to pace. Both Barca and Lyon had 20-minute spells when it looked like they were bound to score, only for Bayern to just about stand firm and then strike at the right moment. They went on to take complete command, but there was a lingering sense they got away with it against inferior opposition. Mbappe may just repeatedly get away from them, ruining them in one of those critical differences that massively determines a game.

Bayern know this all too well, since it is exactly what happened to them in the 2013-14 semi-final against Real Madrid.

It does feel like the game will ultimately develop into a duel between Bayern’s fluid team approach and PSG’s explosive individuals. The German champions will look to control the entire flow of the game. The French champions will look to suddenly burst.

That’s where the difference will lie, in this most different of finals.

One of them will lift that great trophy at the end, but in front of empty Estadio da Luz stands.

It won’t feel like it should, but that’s the case with much of this match.


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