Feronikeli, Lincoln Red Imps, Tre Penne and FC Santa Coloma got the Champions League season off with the preliminary rounds on 25th June 2019 and ten months later, it will end with Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain squaring off in the final at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon tonight.
This has been an unprecedented campaign of European football due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The one-legged games from the quarter-final onwards added more intrigue and gave the so-called underdogs a real chance to progress.
Lyon beat Juventus and Manchester City and Atalanta were minutes away from beating PSG in the quarter-finals.
At the end of it, we are left with two teams that symbolise the rift in European football at the moment – the battle between the traditional powerhouses and the nouveau riche.
Bayern Munich represent the traditional European giants who have history behind them. But PSG are the symbol of everything that the old powerhouses of Europe hate – backed by a nation-state, an almost bottomless pit of money and someone who has gamed UEFA to reach the top.
PSG’s Holy Grail
Once the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani decided to buy PSG close to a decade back and pumped in his state’s considerable funds, the Parisians were always expected to dominate French football. They have won seven of the last eight Ligue 1 titles and five of the last six French cups.
But the Champions League has remained elusive to the club and they have suffered multiple heartbreaks in the competition. From 2013 to 2016, they were stopped in the quarterfinals every year.
In the next three seasons, they were ousted in the Round of 16, which included Barcelona’s La Remontada and Manchester United knocking the Parisians out with an injury-hit squad despite losing 2-0 at Old Trafford in the first leg.
PSG have been accused of wilting under pressure in the Champions League. Atalanta almost knocked them out this season as well but now this is their chance to wipe off previous years’ tears.
Can the PSG players step up against the form team of Europe in Bayern Munich in the final or will they again choke under the bright lights in Lisbon?
Bayern Munich are the team to beat
Hansi Flick’s side are massive favourites going into the final despite the quality PSG have in their squad. The German champions have often looked unbeatable in Europe this season and the 8-2 win over Barcelona was only part of the story.
Robert Lewandowski has scored in every Champions League game he has played this season and has 15 goals in nine games in the competition. He is just two goals short of Cristiano Ronaldo’s haul of 17, which he scored for Real Madrid in the 2013-14 campaign.
Thomas Muller is back to his best this season under Hansi Flick and has a record of 14 goals and 26 assists in all competitions. His partnership with Lewandowski is frighteningly good.
Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Thiago have been pivotal in Bayern Munich controlling the tempo of games. Alphonso Davies and Alvaro Odriozola provide impetus from the full-back positions and David Alaba and Jerome Boateng have looked stable at the heart of their defence.
In short, Bayern Munich have been frighteningly good and it will take one hell of a performance from PSG to stop the German champions from being European champions.
PSG’s attacking trio
Bayern Munich look unbeatable but PSG have the attack to break down any team in Europe. Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria have looked brilliant together since the restart.
Di Maria scored a brace in the 3-0 dismantling of RB Leipzig in the semi-final but Neymar and Mbappe were equally important. The trio pressed an RB Leipzig defence who were always keen to play out from the back and forced them into making mistakes.
The PSG attack could play a similar role against the German champions as well and could even keep their marauding full-backs in Alphonso Davies and Alvaro Odriozola in check.
If the Parisians have to win their first Champions League tonight, their attacking superstars need to step up.
Bayern’s high defensive line could be an issue
The German champions have rarely veered from their plans regardless of their opponents. They play a defensive high line and both Lyon and Barcelona did show the chinks in the Bavarians’ armour.
Barcelona exploited the high line to score an early goal against the German champions and Lyon repeatedly exposed its flaw in the first half only to squander their chances inside the penalty box.
If Bayern Munich again deploy the high line against PSG, it will be a massive risk. The Parisians have the players in their team to play those over the top balls and PSG’s attack would have oodles of space to run in behind the Bayern Munich defence.
Will Hansi Flick take the risk again for the high reward or go a bit more conservative? This decision could make or break the final.
Champions League the last piece in Qatar’s sportswashing efforts
Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, has been PSG’s owner since 2011 through the Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a state-owned organisation.
QSI is a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). QSI chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi has been the PSG president since 2011, but Al Thani is the ultimate power behind the scenes.
He is the chairman of the QIA and founded QSI. To put it more bluntly: Qatar is PSG, PSG is Qatar. Al Thani will reportedly attend tonight’s final. It will be the first time a state-owned club have been represented on European football’s grandest stage.
There is no one reason for a state to buy a football club. They may enjoy the status that football’s glamour often affords. It could also be a sound financial decision to shift funds offshore and widening business interests. In successful cases, they may even – eventually – generate extra revenue from the project.
But they also buy for soft power purposes, building a global influence and constructing a false image of the country through sport.
That is the principle of sportswashing: “When they think of Qatar, they must think of football.”