Portugal, Finals 2020. These words emblazoned around empty stadiums and on the corner of your TV screens are unique. Never has the Champions League (or the European Cup, its previous avatar) hosted a mini-tournament of this sort to determine the winner.
This has been a year like no other for reasons well all know and the world of sports has adapted to the changing climes after the initial shock.
However, it has been a blessing in disguise for lovers of the beautiful game as the action on show in these, winner-takes-all, one-legged, knockout games has been scintillating. There have been intriguing tactical battles, marvellous attacking football and narratives of upsets and redemption.
On Sunday, we will witness the final that neutrals would have been hoping for. Bayern Munich, favourites to win the Champions League after seven years on the back of some of the best attacking football the knockout stages have seen over the last few years.
But they will have to overcome another team in great rhythm and blessed with an array of stars themselves, Paris Saint-Germain, who are determined to finally lay their hands on their first Champions League crown.
Bayern Munich begin as favourites but not without concerns
Some have compared the brilliant football played by Bayern Munich over the last week as the work of a well-oiled machine in peak form. This writer disagrees.
If it is indeed a machine then it is one with a soul and a beating heart. The work done by Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry, Ivan Perisic, is both uber-efficient and aesthetically pleasing.
Their keen control of possession, lighting-fast switch-overs and one-touch passing will be handful for any defence.
Thiago Silva, in his last season for PSG, will be marshalling the Parisian defence against this attacking whirlwind in the Champions League final, and will have a hell of a task on his hand in what is set to be his final game for the club.
However, it is this high-pressing, high-octane style of Bayern Munich that makes them vulnerable at the back. Bayern’s high defensive line has both become the stuff of legends and their Achilles Heel under Hansi Flick.
Though the club, while scoring 42 goals in 10 games going forward, has not really been torn apart at the back, the signs have been there.
In the first 16 minutes of the Champions League semi-final against Lyon, the French side had the best chances to open the scoring with Memphis Depay missing his target after some great work on the ball.
Lyon also hit the post in that ascendant spell. Their gameplan was simple but efficient; expose the wide spaces behind the wing-backs of the Bayern back four through quick counters.
Alphonso Davies, possibly the best attacking left-back in the game with a dazzling array of skills and deft footwork, is often so advanced down the left flank that he is generally operating as a faux winger.
Bayern Munich’s great ball retention has helped them stave off the dangers of such a move, but they are always at the risk of conceding.
The Bayern central defence pairing of David Alaba and Jerome Boateng did decently against Lyon and Manuel Neuer was in top form, but they will expect a lot more threat from the star-studded PSG forwards in the final.
Meanwhile, Boateng is doubtful for this game which might result in Niklas Sule drafted into the back.
Joshua Kimmich will again slot in at right-back but will have to be wary of going on those overlaps that have had a devastating effect for so long. In general, he seems more capable of reining in his attacking instincts than the effervescent Davies on the other wing.
Bayern have been away from the top of Europe for too long by their high standards, upstaged by the utter domination of Real Madrid and the resurgence of Liverpool in recent years and will be determined to begin their own era of success in Europe with this game.
PSG sense opportunity
PSG have often been ridiculed for spending petrodollars in forging a superstar team. Their subsequent exits from Europe and failure to even reach a Champions League final has added to the clamour against a team that many feel are trying to unfairly buy success.
Bayern Munich bring heritage and pedigree to this Champions League final, PSG represent the nouveau rich of the game. It is a battle between tradition and change in more ways than one.
However, PSG are also playing for the French league, again a source of derision for its supposed low standards especially when compared to the other big leagues in the continent.
When Lyon knocked out Manchester City in the quarters, PSG star Kylian Mbappe posted a sarcastic tweet hitting back at the detractors of Ligue 1.
There are other, more poignant narratives at play. It can be the right end to a journey of redemption for Neymar, PSG’s cynosure. Although the Brazilian attacker failed to score in the last two victories, he has been up for every game and played his role in PSG finally making it to a Champions League final.
For a player who was about to leave the club after seasons of frustrations, this has indeed been a remarkable turnaround.
PSG’s galaxy of brilliant creative players also includes Angel Di Maria. Chucked out of Real Madrid after helping them to a Champions League, the Argentine winger has also been on a quest to prove his mettle once again.
Indeed, PSG through Neymar, Mbappe, Marco Verratti, Di Maria and company, have gelled together at the right time and will be more lethal than both Barcelona and Lyon in exposing Bayern’s defence.
It might even come down to who scores more in what promises to be an exhilarating attack-oriented Champions League final.