Sunday, September 5, 2021

Bayern Munich cap perfect pandemic run with Champions League victory

The night ended with Hans Zimmer’s score from King Arthur filling the emptiness of the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. It began with a different Hans and his decision to start Kingsley Coman in place of Ivan Perišić in the UEFA Champions League final against Paris-Saint Germain (PSG) on 23 August. The Croatian had started the last two games and participated in the demolition of Barcelona in the quarter-final. But there are few decisions that Bayern’s current coach, Hans-Dieter ‘Hansi’ Flick, has taken that haven’t paid off since he took over mid-season from Niko Kovač. This one did too, with Coman scoring the game’s lone goal, taking Bayern to a sixth Champions League title. In doing so, they repeated the treble of 2013—Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, Champions League—and set a new tournament record: the first side to win without dropping a point.

The talk before the game was all about how PSG’s star attackers Neymar and Kylian Mbappé could take advantage of the high defensive line Bayern had maintained through the championship. Wisely, Bayern didn’t have as aggressive a line. In a goalless but lively first half, PSG had the better chances. Bayern captain Manuel Neuer made two saves in succession, first getting a hand to Neymar’s shot on goal, then recovering and throwing his leg out to block his cross. Jerome Boateng went down in the 23rd minute and was replaced by Niklas Süle, who’d spent most of the season on the sidelines with an ACL injury. Ángel Di María skied one over the bar.

Bayern kept their composure, and found their rhythm going into the break. Coman went down in the PSG box in the 45th minute—the referee didn’t ask for VAR. Their best chances were a Robert Lewandowski shot that hit the post in the 18th minute and another stopped at point-blank range by Keylor Navas in the 31st minute.

After the break, the mood changed. Bayern started to dominate the midfield, swarming and hurrying PSG. Neymar went down once, then twice, resulting in a brief scuffle and yellow cards for Serge Gnabry and Leandro Paredes. Coman, meanwhile, was creating havoc with his darting runs and feints down the left. A goal seemed likely and it came in the 59th minute: a smart Thomas Müller back pass, a lovely curling ball by Joshua Kimmich, and a calm header by Coman—against his former club—into the far corner of the goal.

From then on, the game always seemed to be just beyond PSG’s grasp. They had a chance 10 minutes after Bayern’s goal, Neuer executing a sliding block to snuff out Marquinhos. Neither Neymar nor Mbappé looked threatening—the latter’s night was summed up when he was denied, at point blank range, by Neuer in the 90th minute, though it would have been offside anyway. PSG playmaker Marco Verratti, not at full fitness, was brought on, but inspiration was lacking.

Bayern seemed to realise this wouldn’t be the kind of game they’d played all tournament, chancy and high-scoring. Instead, they parked themselves in PSG’s half, denied them the ball, and ran at them incessantly. Coman, his job done, was replaced by Perišić, Gnabry by Philippe Coutinho, in the 68th minute. Fresh legs gegenpress best.

The yellow cards came thick and fast on both sides. What everyone had thought would be a goal fest was instead a game of inches, short on finesse, high on crunching bodies. The Bayern defence held firm, with Kimmich at right-back closing Mbappé down, and Süle, David Alaba and Leon Goretzka stifling Neymar (the PSG defence had a solid game too, keeping the German side that had rampaged through the tournament quiet). Thiago Alcantara, in what may have been his last game for Bayern, was memorable—a perennially calm presence in midfield, instrumental in his side’s buildups, with that touch of class in his little turns and pivots.

PSG coach Thomas Tuchel made substitution after substitution. With five minutes of extra time, the benches turned cheerleaders, a masked Javi Martínez and Benjamin Pavard willing their teammates to hang on. They did so without much difficulty. The whistle blew and the Bayern players were in a happy heap. Alaba consoled Neymar. Lykke Li’s I Follow Rivers played, then the more Germanic Zimmer theme. Hansi Flick finally smiled.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge on 24 August 2020.

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