The Champions League that almost was not — the one played against a backdrop of fear and insecurity (but also solidarity and self-scrutiny) — ended with the European Cup trophy returning where it has been before. Bayern Munich’s 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain marks the German club’s sixth time as champions of Europe, pulling them even with Liverpool, one behind Milan (and six behind Real Madrid).
The “big count” matters, because for most of Europe’s elite, domestic titles feel mundane to the point that they become noteworthy only when they are not delivered to the doorstep every spring. PSG hope to be among that elite one day and Sunday could have been a giant step in that direction. But while the chances were there for the French team, the finishing was not.
And that was a non-negotiable requirement against a Bayern side that have won 29 of their past 30 matches in all competitions, that have not lost a game since 2019 and that emerged as a perfect 11-for-11 in the Champions League this season.
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For long chunks in Lisbon, PSG had set up the way conventional wisdom suggested they should and it had yielded results. Manager Thomas Tuchel, the self-styled “rulebreaker,” had in fact done what many expected him to do: Stay tight and organized at the back and exploit Bayern’s penchant for playing a high press and defensive line. (Actually, is it even a line when two of your back four camp out in the opposing half like old-style wingers?)
Kylian Mbappe slipped away from his closest markers, Joshua Kimmich and Serge Gnabry, enough times to see shots blocked or help set up Angel Di Maria (skied into the second tier) or Neymar (denied by Manuel Neuer). And the biggest chance of the first half fell to the French striker, after a rare Bayern defensive blunder left him with an easy side foot, but Mbappe’s flaccid nudge was right at Neuer.
A leg injury meant Tuchel was forced to sit alone, crutches at hand, on a pitch-side picnic cooler like the weird uncle to whom nobody wants to talk at family reunions. He put both hands to his forehead when Mbappe missed, mouth open wide, before hopping on one foot to shout further encouragement. Positive reinforcement and all that … but he knew. He knew mistakes get punished.
This is not to say the first half was all about PSG, because it was not. Rather, Bayern seemed unflustered by the fact that neither their furious press of the first 20 minutes nor the somewhat more measured approach taken for the rest of the period yielded much beyond two brilliant Robert Lewandowski efforts. The first was an absurdly quick turn-and-shot that hit the post; the second an improbable far-post header that saw him adjust his neck in midair to force a save out of Keylor Navas.
Bayern looked almost carefree as they walked off the pitch at half-time, as if they were unbothered about the chances surrendered or the fact that Mbappe was now up against the hulking Niklas Sule (and large objects aren’t supposed to move fast). Their opponents, meanwhile, had the look of a teenager who had borrowed dad’s BMW, scratched up the paintwork and was terrified there would be hell to pay.
The game’s goal came just before the hour mark when Joshua Kimmich, by this point not advancing down the right flank to deliver crosses but rather drifting inside to deliver final balls like the playmaker he is at heart, coolly picked out Kingsley Coman at the far post. The former PSG enfant prodige headed it past Navas with gusto.
Bayern coach Hansi Flick, who had chosen an all-black outfit for his first Champions League final as a boss — perhaps a nod to the monochrome he sported as Joachim Low’s sidekick with Germany’s World Cup winners in 2014 — raised an arm into the Lisbon sky and plotted his next move. It was a counterintuitive one for a team leading in the second half of a final.
Out went speedy wingers Gnabry and Coman and in came on-loan veterans Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic. It was as if the man in black was saying: “Ha! I know you’re going to come at me, but rather than scoring a second with my burners, I’ll keep the ball and play through you with my ballers.”
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PSG were not done. Contrary to the popular belief of some, this is a side with character, who came back from 1-0 down in injury time to beat Atalanta in the quarterfinals. Marquinhos was put through one-on-one with Neuer, only for the big German to claw it away (and, with this performance, perhaps clawing away those who argue Marc-Andre ter Stegen is his country’s best keeper).
When Mbappe sliced through the Bayern defence before being nicked by Kimmich, referee Daniele Orsato stepped away and, with a clear sight line, said, “No penalty.” VAR did not insist he change his mind and, after substitute Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting twice just failed to get on the end of crosses, that was that.
Europe has its champion and it is a worthy one, not just for what the road-grading Bayern did in the past half year but for where they were 10 months ago. Having lost half their starting back four to season-ending injuries, their big summer arrival (Coutinho) was struggling and Thomas Muller — “Mia San Mia” (the club motto) made flesh — was in and out of the side.
Their manager, Nico Kovac, had been unceremoniously dumped less than three months into the season and in his place came Flick, who had not actually been a No. 1 since 2006. And still, here they are — Treble winners for the second time in club history.
Sure, Bayern are beneficiaries of being a superclub and fully paid-up members of the game’s 1 percenters, who boast bigger, deeper and more talented squads than almost anybody else. The imbalance of power and resources in the game must be addressed (UEFA keep saying they will do just that).
But that does not explain what we have seen since the turn of the year, particularly when juxtaposed with everything that went wrong in the first few months of the campaign. So yes, they are worthy winners and, more than that, they are likable winners, something not every Bayern team has managed to be in the past.
The pastiche at the end, with Leon Goretzka rolling up his sleeves to his shoulders for a “cup’s out, guns out” trophy lift; Alphonso Davies, the fourth CONCACAF player to win the Champions League after Dwight Yorke, Rafael Marquez and Navas, displaying the Canadian flag like an apron; Muller’s grinning, overgrown hyperactive kid enthusiasm; all of it seemed as real as it was infectious. And definitely hard to argue with.