Champions League Final Preview
Champions League Final Preview
Lyon's run is finally over. Although the stage and the enormity of the task was probably much greater for Ajax last season, Lyon's semi-final exit certainly has similarities to that of the Dutch champions. Serge Gnabry's pace proved too much to handle for the French side, and all that stands between Bayern Munich and the Champions league trophy is an expensively assembled PSG squad.
Paris Saint-Germain will contest the final of Europe's top club competition for the first time ever, and nine years after Nasser Al Khelaifi's takeover. They have had flashes of scintillating football, and sometimes looked like genuine title contenders, only to fall away at a crucial stage and crash out of the competition. This time, however, Thomas Tuchel's men have played like a team, rather than a randomly assembled group of talented footballers thrown onto the pitch.
Alphonso Davies vs Kylian Mbappe
By now, it's painfully evident that very few players exist who can match Alphonso Davies for pace. Lyon's Karl Toko Ekambi did come close, even if all of his poor finishing and decision-making meant that no one really remembers it. Toko Ekambi went toe to toe with Davies on a few occasions, even beating him to the ball once, but couldn't go further. This time, however, Davies will have to deal with Kylian Mbappe. The 21-year old has been anointed as the heir apparent to the title of the world's best footballer. His blistering pace and trickery has attracted every football fan, and one only needs to look back to the 2018 World Cup to see how he can single-handedly destroy defences.
All that makes Mbappe's duel with Davies even more intriguing. Pace is not the only thing Davies possesses; he is also a brilliant defender, but this is likely to be his sternest test so far. Converted from a winger, few expected the Canadian to reach the level where he currently is - he is in fact the first ever Candian international to play in the Champions League final - but his performances on the field have done the talking. These are two players who possess the ability to completely outclass the other. The pace of Davies and his fellow defenders is crucial for Bayern maintaining their defensive highline, but Mbappe might be the one perfectly poised to be able to get in behind and find the finish to beat Neuer. Needless to say, this might be the duel that wins the game.
Neymar's Profligacy and Superb Marquinhos
Neymar has some dazzling footwork, no doubt. It was Neymar who won the free-kick that led to les Parisiens’ opener. But his finishing has been off in the last two games. He wasted a number of chances against Atalanta before Choupo-Moting provided the decisive contributions, while he hit the post twice against Leipzig, including one chance where he had just the 'keeper to beat. Compared to Atalanta and Leipzig, Bayern are a different and more efficient beast. Missed opportunities and poor finishes will hurt PSG, as Lyon learnt in the semi-final. Neymar – who has gotten into controversy after swapping shirts with a Leipzig player, a tradition that UEFA has asked players not to indulge in due to the ongoing pandemic situation – must work on his end-product. He is one of the best players in the world, and PSG will need him at the top of his game.
Marquinhos has been a revelation since switching to a defensive midfield role. He has brought solidity to the midfield, and also brings an additional aerial threat, as shown by his headers in each of the last two rounds. He will be crucial for PSG, going up against the wily Muller, as well as Thiago and Goretzka from deeper positions. He will have two of Leandro Paredes, Idrissa Gueye, Ander Herrera or Marco Veratti with him, but he is undoubtedly the key cog. Marquinhos is the one that makes the difference in midfield.
Bayern's high line
Even before the Lyon game, the main point was Bayern's high defensive line and how one might take advantage of that. Bayern have mostly managed to hold their shape, with the experience of Jerome Boateng and sweeper-keeper Neuer going hand-in-hand with the pace of Kimmich, Alaba and Davies. Yet, Bayern rode their luck against Lyon. The French side kept getting behind their defenders, and could have gone two goals up if not for the inability of Memphis Depay and Toko Ekambi to finish off their chances. PSG won't be as kind, with the likes of Mauro Icardi and Kylian Mbappe much more accomplished finishers. In attack, the Germans are ruthless and efficient, but a similar opening period to the one against Lyon in the semi-final will hurt them much more here. Leon Goretzka and Thiago aren't traditional defensive midfielders either, which makes Bayern seem even more brittle on paper. This might be a game for someone like Javi Martinez to come in and screen the defence, although it is sensible to not fix what ain't broken, and keep trusting in the players who have got them this far.
The experience of Angel Di Maria and Robert Lewandowski
Neymar and Kylian Mbappe take most of the plaudits, but if PSG’s last two games prove anything, it is Angel Di Maria who is the indispensable one. They were disjointed in attack against Atalanta without the experienced Champions league winner, and he provided the touch of class needed to get past Leipzig. Di Maria, even at 32, continues to dazzle, finding exquisite passes and deft finishes to elevate his team’s gameplay. Against Bayern, his experience and decision-making will surely be crucial. Man of the match in the 2014 final, Di Maria has the chance to add another trophy to his collection, and at the same time, help his side join the elite group of Champions league winning teams. He will be quietly influential, and amongst the world-record signings, he might be the one Bayern must look out for.
Robert Lewandowski has had a phenomenal season, so much so that he would be quite justified to take the decision not to award the Ballon d’Or this season as a personal affront. He has absolutely devoured opposing defences, and his astonishing goalscoring record in every competition is enough to strike fear into opponents’ hearts. Surely, he would have been the favourite to win the award this year. But no matter, for it’s the Champions League trophy at stake. For all his exploits, this is a trophy that has eluded the Polish international. He was on the losing side in the 2013 final, in a game that proved to be his last in a Dortmund shirt, and this is his first final since. Time is running out, and he no doubt would like to get his hands on this one. He’ll have plenty of motivation when he walks out onto the pitch at the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica in Lisbon. Thiago Silva and Presenel Kimpembe have their tasks cut out.
It is difficult to predict this one. One or two things here and there, and the result might come out to be drastically different. However, I do think Bayern Munich have enough in the tank to add another European trophy. Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski are in red-hot form, while Thomas Muller and Ivan Perisic have been ever present. PSG's defence is no slouch, but on balance, Bayern probably have enough to get past the first-time finalists.
Prediction: Close Bayern win.
About the Writer:
Anubhav is an engineering student from Kolkata who is extremely passionate about football and loves watching the beautiful game.
Connect with him on his LinkedIn handle here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/anubhavaero