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Traditional good to trump modern evil

Eamonn Sweeney


‘Robert Lewandowski has gone up another level this term with 55 goals from 46 games, his 34 goals in the Bundesliga the highest total there in 43 years’. Photo: Getty

‘Robert Lewandowski has gone up another level this term with 55 goals from 46 games, his 34 goals in the Bundesliga the highest total there in 43 years’. Photo: Getty

‘Robert Lewandowski has gone up another level this term with 55 goals from 46 games, his 34 goals in the Bundesliga the highest total there in 43 years’. Photo: Getty

We're overdue a great Champions League final. Aren't we always? The last great final was probably 2011 when Barcelona gave an exhibition en route to beating Manchester United 3-1, the last good one was 2015 when Barca bested Juve by the same scoreline. Last year's decider was abominable entertainment for everyone except Liverpool fans. The world's most hyped club game frequently disappoints.

The decade gone by has actually been above the historical average entertainment wise. In the old European Cup days, 1978 to 1983 produced six 1-0s in a row. In the 18 finals between 1978 and 1995, only twice did both teams hit the target. It's unwise to set your hopes too high.

Yet tonight's pairing seems an unusually promising one. Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain have been the best teams in the competition and compiled outstanding records in the group stages. Both are committed to attacking football, Bayern hitting 100 goals in this year's Bundesliga and PSG 105 in last year's Ligue 1.

The contrasts between the two sides add to the intrigue. Tonight will be a battle of tradition versus modernity, good versus evil and collective cohesion versus individual inspiration. It will also possess the virtue of novelty as just the third decider without a Spanish, English or Italian team since the Champions League began in 1993.

Bayern are seeking to complete what would be one of the greatest European club campaigns in history. They are averaging an incredible 4.2 goals per game and had beaten Spurs 7-2 and Red Star Belgrade 6-0, both away, before the 8-2 humiliation of Barcelona eight days ago which was one of the finest performances ever witnessed in this competition.

In Robert Lewandowski they possess a player who'd probably have won the Ballon D'Or award had the organisers not decided to cancel it due to Covid-19. After one of the great modern goalscoring careers, over 40 a year four seasons in a row, the Polish star has gone up another level this term with 55 goals from 46 games, his 34 goals in the Bundesliga the highest total there in 43 years.

His old henchman Thomas Muller is coming off a season where his 21 assists set a new Bundesliga record. Written off when his form slumped a couple of seasons back and axed from the German squad, Muller has reinvented himself as a creator to devastating effect.

Then there's Serge Gnabry. Just four years ago this week Arsenal let him go to Werder Bremen for £5million after he'd made just 10 Premier League appearances in three seasons. It's easy to berate the Gunners for short sightedness but few could have forecast the way Gnabry, now 25, would flourish over the past couple of seasons for Bayern.

The four goals he scored against Spurs back in October set the tone for a European campaign where only Lewandowski and Erling Haaland have scored more. His stunning individual opener against Lyon in the semi-final evoked memories of Arjen Robben, scorer of the winning goal for Bayern in their last Champions League final victory.

Munich possess plenty of outstanding individuals. Alphonso Davies has emerged as the most exciting teenager in world football despite the twin handicaps of playing at left-back and coming from Canada, Joshua Kimmich has oscillated between world class defender and world class midfielder with little difficulty and even at 34 Manuel Neuer is probably still the best goalkeeper in the game.

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Despite all this individual talent, Bayern still manage to be more than the sum of their parts. There is a collective remorselessness about the team which manifested itself not only in that massacre of Barcelona, but also in their finishing with 20 wins out of 21 games when the Bundesliga crown looked under threat.

PSG still have a puncher's chance thanks to the presence of the two players who seem like the most likely heirs to Messi and Ronaldo. Five years ago, Neymar seemed poised to ascend the throne after a La Liga season of 39 goals from 51 games for Barcelona and a third place in the Ballon D'Or behind the big two. The world seemed to be at his feet.

Today there is the sense of a player, at 28, not having quite fulfilled his potential. A disappointing final season for Barcelona was followed by a transfer to Paris where injuries, a tendency towards self-indulgence and disciplinary lapses have taken their toll. If some of the criticism has seemed OTT there's no denying that the Brazilian lacks the inexorable drive which kept Messi and Ronaldo at the top for so long.

Yet he still possesses the most sublime touch, illustrated by the perfection of the ball he played in injury-time, just inside a defender and right into the path of Kylian Mbappé, for the Frenchman to set up the winner against Atalanta. Neymar can do things that only the greatest are capable of. He just doesn't do them often enough.

At 21 Mbappé is where Neymar was five years ago. An outstanding World Cup final winner in 2018 when he was fourth in the Ballon D'Or, a scorer of 69 goals in 79 games over the last two seasons, athletic, skilled and with a better attitude than his team-mate Mbappé seemed unstoppable.

Or at least he did until a month ago in the French Cup final when St Etienne captain Loic Perrin decided to mark his last match by perpetrating the most infamous hack since Andoni Goikoetxea took Diego Maradona out of it in 1983. It initially looked as though Mbappé would be out for the rest of the season but he came off the bench in the quarter-final and started in the semi, though looking a long way off his best. There are other fine players in the Paris line-up, Marquinhos, Angel Di Maria and Thiago Silva among them, but you feel that either Neymar or Mbappé or both will need to produce one of the great final performances, like Messi's in 2011, Ruud Gullit's in 1989 or Dejan Savicevic's in 1994, if there is to be an upset.

PSG may be underdogs, but they're unlikely to command much neutral support. The Qatari regime which owns them is every bit as unattractive as the UAE one in charge of Manchester City and there are times when the club, with all its talk about the 'synergistic entertainment experience' and so on seems on a mission to foreground the unattractive commercial aspects of modern football. The whole PSG project has an artificial feel to it.

Bayern Munich are different. They are one of the world's great clubs and a win tonight would mean that only Real Madrid and AC Milan will have won more Champions League titles. And they are a product of the German league system whose emphasis on financial sustainability and affordable prices for fans means it is unlikely to ever produce a Manchester City or Paris St Germain.

Sceptics liked to ask what good this stuff was when the Bundesliga lagged behind La Liga and the Premier League. Yet I think you could make a case that the German league is Europe's strongest at the moment.

They had two of the last four in the Champions League, Borussia Dortmund came very close against PSG in the round of 16 and Bayer Leverkusen gave Inter Milan plenty of it in the Europa League. Munich may have won the league comfortably enough in the end, but they had to raise their game considerably, and bring in a new manager, to do so.

Manchester City's defeat by Lyon and Manchester United's by Sevilla confirmed what Liverpool's utter dominance had suggested about the mediocrity of this year's Premier League. The European eclipse of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid suggested a flabby and complacent La Liga is also enduring a transitional phase.

It's striking too how many of the most sensational young talents are in the Bundesliga, Haaland, Davies, Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz and Dayot Upamecano for starters. Both of tonight's managers, Bayern's Hans Flick and PSG's Thomas Tuchel are German, as is the world's best young manager Julian Nagelsmann, who brought Leipzig to the semi-final.

So for that matter is a certain Herr Klopp, whose high speed energetic direct system, the antithesis of Jose Mourinho's caution and Pep Guardiola's more deliberate approach, is steeped in Bundesliga values. The financial readjustments facing football during the coming uncertain era may make The German Touch look even more attractive in the near future.

If the game plan is German, the personnel who execute it will be international. Players from 11 different countries featured in the semi-finals for tonight's two teams. There was a Canadian, a Croatian and a Cameroonian. There were six Spaniards and five Frenchmen. And topping the list were nine Germans.

It's the year of the Germans, and of Bayern.

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