Paris Saint-Germain will present Bayern Munich with their sternest test of the season in Sunday’s Champions League final. Hansi Flick’s side have swept all before them, but can they stop Neymar, Mbappe and co?
Hansi Flick has a decision to make. Bayern’s high-octane style has seen them sweep all before them this season and they reach Sunday’s Champions League final having scored 15 goals in their last three games, on the back of a remarkable 29-game unbeaten run.
Such formidable form is rare going into European football’s showpiece event and Bayern remain the team to beat in Lisbon. Their relentlessness is marked with a flair and style not seen in a Bayern team for a very long time — maybe ever — but their penchant for outscoring their opponents and playing a high defensive line creates weaknesses. It’s just that they haven’t yet faced a team capable of exploiting them.
Wednesday’s semifinal was won by the most ruthless attack. Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski are not the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, whereas the same couldn’t be said of Lyon. But Paris Saint-Germain aren’t likely to be as charitable as their compatriots, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe finding fitness and form at the perfect time and Angel di Maria the maestro directing the orchestra.
Paris are a great team,” said Flick. “We know they have quick players and we will have to organize our defense differently, but we know our biggest strength is putting our opponents under pressure.”
The question that may have been keeping Flick awake at night is whether he sticks to what he knows or tweaks his tactics to account for the quality of opposition. His comments above suggest a change is in the offing, but Flick’s problem is that Bayern don’t really have another way of playing that doesn’t sacrifice their ability to score almost at will, also reflected in the Bayern coach’s words.
Gnabry and Neuer key
With Flick likely to only make small tweaks to his winning formula, Manuel Neuer’s performance will be critical. Bayern are not suddenly going to start defending deep, which means when Mbappe or Neymar get behind their defense, Neuer will have to sweep like no keeper has ever swept before. His ability to read attacks and time his intervention to perfection will be tested to the limit, with PSG likely to breach Bayern’s defense more than once on Sunday.
Despite Bayern’s Achilles heel, they can take comfort in PSG having concerns of their own — not least a prosaic midfield that lakes dynamism and a lack of balance between defense and attack. Serge Gnabry, who has nine goals in as many Champions League games this season, is the one Bayern player with everything in his repertoire to run PSG ragged, and Flick has been speaking about his quality.
“If you look at the way Serge developed in the last years, not only at Bayern but also in the national team, then you have to say that he is close to world class,” Flick said. “He is a dynamic and dangerous goalscorer, so we are happy that he is in our team. He has tremendous quality but I am sure that he is far from the finished product.”
If there’s one Bayern player who deserves a Champions League winner’s medal, it’s Lewandowski. The striker celebrated his 32nd birthday on Friday and, despite having scored an astounding 55 goals this season, this may be his last shot at European glory.
The Champions League title has always evaded him though. The closest he came was 2013 when he spearheaded the attack in Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund team – famously scoring four goals against Real Madrid in the semifinal but losing the final to the team for whom he now plays. With Real Madrid having tried and failed to sign the Pole in the intervening years, this final promises to be a moment of personal vindication.
Lewandowski is simply the best striker in the world, of that there is no doubt. He has waited seven years for this moment and, like Bayern themselves, comes into this final in the form of his life and is desperate to win club football’s biggest prize. The question is whether Bayern and Flick have the answers to the questions PSG will ask.