A single goal for Bayern Munich, headed in by ex-PSG youth product Kingsley Coman just before the hour mark after the best move of Sunday's Champions League final, was enough to give the German powerhouse its sixth European title. It was a 1-0 victory thoroughly merited on its second-half performance in the final, and for its relentless excellence through the tournament. This was its 21st straight victory in all competitions, a run of form that suggests what a remarkable impact manager Hansi Flick has had since replacing Niko Kovac in November.
As ever, these days, context is required. This was a victory for the team that has the state airline of an emirate with a dreadful human rights record as a sponsor over the team owned by the emirate with the dreadful human rights record. Qatar Airlines was promoting the game as the Qlassico. This was a game that resulted directly from a meeting held in the Elysee Palace on Nov. 23, 2010, between then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, then-UEFA president Michel Platini, the impoverished owners of PSG and the Crown Prince of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Ten days later, Platini mysteriously voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. Within a year, Qatar owned 70 percent of PSG, and football had become a theater of Qatari foreign policy. All of this is deeply unsavory and deeply unhealthy and should never be forgotten, no matter how enticing the football it may produce turns out to be.
So PSG remains unfulfilled, a project that has now cost almost $1.5 billion in transfer fees alone but has not yielded the trophy its Qatari owners so desire. That it was a player that left the club on a free transfer who scored the winner will only intensify the sense of waste. For all of PSG’s improvement this season, by the end, it was a familiar tale of frustration and recrimination.
In terms of the actual football, there can have been very few if any finals with such depth of ability on both sides–which is, of course, the upside of the superclub era: it does, in the latter stages of the Champions League, tend to produce exciting games of exceptional quality. And this, at least in the first half, was a game of a remarkably high level, relentless in its pressing and attacking. That there were no goals until the 59th minute had less to do with a lack of intent than with the defending. Whatever else manager Thomas Tuchel has achieved at PSG, he has transformed it from a side of monstrous indulgence into a team of formidable organization in which there are no passengers; even Neymar, so often a symbol of the club’s self-absorption in the past, has become a player who fulfills his defensive responsibilities with diligence.
Bayern, as had been expected, pressed hard and high from the start, and by so doing opened itself up to PSG breaks. As in Bayern’s quarterfinal and semifinal wins, it leaked early chances. In the final, that meant Manuel Neuer having to make one excellent save on a Neymar chance, Angel Di Maria firing over, Ander Herrera having a drive deflected just wide and Kylian Mbappe hitting a tame shot at the goalkeeper after a bizarre defensive lapse. And as in those previous games, the more the half went on, the more Bayern seemed to wear its opponent down. Robert Lewandowski, with 55 goals already in all competitions this season, hit the post after a sharp turn and then saw a close-range header blocked by Keylor Navas.
The one change to the Bayern team was the selection of Coman instead of Ivan Perisic on the left. Flick explained the decision by saying, “We're facing Paris, his boyhood club. We hope he will be a bit more motivated. And he has the quality and speed to cut through the defense."
It was a faith that ultimately would be vindicated, the prize a second treble for the club in seven years. Coman, a 24-year-old player who has hoarded major trophies in his young career, seemed initially to struggle to get into the game, overhitting a couple of passes. As the first half went on, though, he began to grow in confidence and began to impose himself on Thilo Kehrer. He thought he should have had a penalty in the final minute of the half when he got behind Kehrer only to be brought down by a slight nudge and a clip of the side of the foot, but Italian referee Daniele Orsato was unconvinced.
But it was Coman who broke the deadlock after a superb Bayern move. The game had seemed to be becoming cagier after the break, with PSG sitting deep and Bayern struggling to find paths through it. There was even a classic Neymar scream and writhe after a fairly inconsequential challenge from Serge Gnabry–a sure-fire sign of a game that is beginning to lose its shape. But then a rapid series of angled passes culminating in a Thiago Alcantara incision created space for Joshua Kimmich on the right, and he floated a perfect ball to the back post for Coman to head in.
Mbappe could have had a penalty after he seemed to be kicked by Niklas Sule, but it was striking in the second half how little impact either he or Neymar had–testament both to how well Bayern pressed and to Flick’s tactical tweaks at halftime.
This was a Champions League like no other, and the format as a result of the pandemic, with the quarterfinals on being played in one location and every round being a single-legged tie, slightly diminishes the achievement. That said, Bayern is the first side ever to win the Champions League by winning every game it played. It has dominated the competition, played some magnificent football and deserved its success.