Sunday’s historic UEFA Champions League final in Lisbon will be the first played behind closed doors and could also see the Paris Saint-Germain of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe win the trophy for the first time, but a Bayern Munich side led by the prolific Robert Lewandowski block their path.
It is a mouthwatering showdown between two of Europe’s super-clubs, with PSG eager to cap their rise in the last decade under Qatari ownership and Bayern hoping to lift the trophy for the sixth time.
Such an occasion deserves to be played in front of a full stadium, but the cavernous, 65,000-seat Estadio da Luz will be empty.
No fans are allowed in, as has been the case throughout this unprecedented ‘Final Eight’ tournament in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is true that it will be odd to play behind closed doors. We would have liked to have our supporters there but I know they are supporting us where they are. But this is still the Champions League,” said Mbappe on Saturday during a virtual press conference.
The competition was suspended for five months before finally resuming earlier in August, with two-legged ties done away with in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
“You still feel all the tension. Everyone wants to win it, especially with this unusual format. Everyone will remember this for a long time because of the tragic events surrounding it,” Mbappe added.
While the atmosphere in the ground will be surreal for the few hundred allowed to attend, the match promises to be fascinating, pitting together two teams whose domestic dominance is almost total and who were both comfortable winners in the semi-finals.
‘Go down in history’
PSG sealed their place in their first Champions League final by beating RB Leipzig 3-0.
They are the first French representative to get this far since Monaco in 2004 and can become just the second team from Ligue 1 to win European club football’s biggest prize, after Marseille in 1993.
“This is exactly why I came here. I always said that I wanted to go down in my country’s history. (This) is another chance to do that,” said Mbappe.
If PSG represent the nouveau riche, Bayern are one of the continent’s traditional giants. This is their 11th final.
The last of their five victories came in 2013. Four starters from that 2-1 final win over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley — goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, David Alaba and Thomas Mueller — could play here, although Boateng is a doubt with a hamstring injury.
When, in 1974, Bayern won their first European Cup, a young PSG outfit were only just winning promotion to France’s top flight.
Leaving aside their storied past, Bayern appear the most formidable team in Europe just now.
Their 3-0 semi-final win over Lyon was their 20th consecutive victory. They are unbeaten in 29 matches since December last year under coach Hansi Flick.
They have already pocketed a German league and cup double, with the Bundesliga title their eighth in a row.
They have won all 10 matches in the Champions League this season, scoring 42 goals, including a 7-2 win at Tottenham Hotspur and the 8-2 quarter-final demolition of Barcelona.
Bayern’s ‘small advantage’
Lewandowski has 55 goals this season. But he is more than ably supported.
Bayern take the risk of playing with a dangerously high defensive line. Yet it remains to be seen if they can afford to take that risk against PSG’s attack of Neymar, Mbappe and Angel Di Maria.
“We’ve always played with a high line and ultimately we’ve got results doing that so we won’t change too much,” Flick insisted.
The French champions, under German coach Thomas Tuchel, have themselves lost once since November 1, last year, and they overturned that 2-1 reverse in Dortmund in the last 16 by winning the return leg.
“It is a small advantage for Bayern that they are used as a club to playing these games. I accept that, but it is not a decisive advantage,” said Tuchel.
Neymar is in fine form and Mbappe has recovered from an ankle injury, while Tuchel was optimistic playmaker Marco Verratti would start after a calf problem.
However, there remains a doubt over goalkeeper Keylor Navas, three times a Champions League winner with Real Madrid, after he missed the semi-final.