THE one-off, one-leg conclusion in Lisbon to this season’s Champions League has delivered high-stakes drama, unforeseen upsets and, in Barcelona’s 8-2 capitulation against Bayern Munich, one of the most shocking results in the European Cup’s 65-year history.
But, in the end, for all the empowerment the unique format offered the underdogs of the last 16, the final pits two of Europe’s wealthiest and most talent-rich teams against each other.
With well over €1bn spent on transfers since the club’s 2011 Qatari takeover, Paris Saint-Germain, at long last, have reached the stage they have yearned for. Domestic dominance is par for the course for the club that boast – in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe – the two costliest players in football history; the Champions League has always been the true goal, and their comfortable victory over RB Leipzig on Tuesday night leaves them one step away.
Having now won nine Bundesliga titles in a row, Bayern hold an even greater dominion over the German top flight than Paris enjoy in France. They too have longed for continental success for the best part of the last decade. After seeing off Lyon in Wednesday's semi, they have booked their first final appearance since their Treble-clinching triumph over rivals Borussia Dortmund at Wembley in 2013.
The headline individuals when the two sides face off will undoubtedly – and understandably – be Neymar and Robert Lewandowski. And had this year’s Ballon d’Or not already been cancelled, the game’s most prestigious individual award might have been on the line on Sunday night, as well as club football’s most sought-after silverware.
Neymar left Barcelona in a world-record £198m transfer in the summer of 2017 to escape the long shadow Lionel Messi casts at the Camp Nou, and to stake his own claim for the individual accolades the Argentinian has reaped. With the exception of some errant finishing, the Brazilian’s performances in Portugal have been worthy of the highest honours.
As thing stand, though, no player has the right to feel more aggrieved about the bizarre decision to scrap the Ballon d’Or this year than Lewandowski. The Polish striker claimed his 55th goal of the season when he sealed Bayern’s 3-0 victory over Lyon on Wednesday night, a tally notched in only 46 all-competitions games. He has 15 goals in the Champions League alone, just two short of Cristiano Ronaldo’s single-season record, despite the competition being truncated by the single-leg knockout stage this term.
Neither Bayern Munich nor Paris Saint-Germain can be categorised as anything close to one-man teams, however. Bayern boast seven World Cup winners among their squad, arguably the most talent-rich roster on the planet. And Paris have quality and depth in every position – although only a pitiable four World Cup winners – with the likes of Angel Di Maria and Marquinhos turning in stellar performances in Lisbon.
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The pitting of two of the world’s best young players against each other – perhaps even head-to-head, depending on how Thomas Tuchel assembles his attack – will also be an intriguing storyline. Twenty-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe is aiming to add the Champions League to his dizzying medal haul, while 19-year-old Canadian left-back Alphonso Davies is now widely regarded to be one of the best in his position after dismantling Barcelona.
Bayern didn’t miss a beat during football’s mid-pandemic shutdown. They haven’t lost a game in 2020, and Hansi Flick’s rejuvenation of the Bavarian giants has even stepped up a gear since football resumed. They have won 28 of their last 29 games in all competitions, drawing the only match they were not victorious in. It could be reasonably argued that no side has ever entered a Champions League final as in-form as this Bayern team.
But Paris Saint-Germain have been in fine fettle themselves. Their only defeat this calendar year came in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Borussia Dortmund, a result they avenged to secure progress behind closed doors in the last days before Covid-19 froze football still. And the fact they have been able to hit the ground running in Lisbon, wobbling only slightly as they avoided a scare against Atalanta, is all the more impressive given Ligue 1 was cancelled, rather than postponed, back in March.
The absence of a live crowd might make Sunday’s final feel somewhat anticlimactic, and the fixture’s lack of romance – a state-backed super-team versus one of Europe’s true behemoth clubs – is a deflating reflection of the modern game at the elite end. But these two sides have so craved Champions League glory in recent years and are each so crammed with talent that their Lisbon showdown has the makings of a high-quality, high-drama classic.