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PSG and Bayern Munich Put on a Show

The two Champions League finalists from a season ago dazzled in the first leg of the quarterfinals, but will the vulnerabilities that led to such entertainment prevent either from returning to the title match?

The quibble with elite modern sides is that they only really play half the game, that they are so dominant in their domestic leagues that they forget how to, or simply don’t bother to, defend. But the result is games like Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals and a rematch of their August final in Lisbon. It was chaotic, frenetic, frequently brilliant and tremendous fun.

Whether any side can win the Champions League defending like this must be doubtful. Logic suggests the advantage lies with more balanced teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea. Or perhaps the attacking might of a Bayern or a PSG will just blow them away. The pace of the game, the level of creative invention was extraordinary—but perhaps the defensive shortcomings allowed it to be.

The question in last season’s Champions League final was whether Bayern’s high line would be vulnerable to the pace of Kylian Mbappé. Bayern, though, was absolutely at its peak then and maintained such a compact shape that PSG was controlled relatively comfortably. Here, though, it took Mbappé just three minutes to strike. Bayern has not been defensively at its best this season, conceding 35 goals in 27 league games, and it was horribly exposed as Joshua Kimmich was isolated by a simple turnover on the left side of midfield. Neymar surged forward and slipped in Mbappé, whose shot squirmed past Manuel Neuer.

What followed was mesmerizing. Bayern, its unbeaten streak in the Champions League now done at 19 games, was threatening, at times sparkling, going forward. Keylor Navas made a string of fine saves. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, the former PSG forward who was called upon to replace the injured Robert Lewandowski, had headed against the bar even before PSG took the lead. And yet for all of Bayern’s dominance, for all the time it spent around the box, every counter caused panic. Neuer’s distribution before halftime became haphazard, the defensive line dropped a couple of yards, and that in turn created space in midfield. The almost impenetrable shape of August had vanished.

PSG had already had an effort ruled out for a tight offside when Marquinhos added the second. Bayern had struggled from the start to deal with set plays, and when it half-cleared a corner after 28 minutes, two defenders stayed back as everybody else pushed out. The result was that Marquinhos was onside as Neymar whipped a cross into the box, and he finished calmly.

But within seconds he was forced off with a groin injury. Ander Herrera came on, but the defensive reshuffle left PSG short of height at the back. Within five minutes, an unmarked Choupo-Moting had headed in Benjamin Pavard’s cross.

Even allowing for the COVID-19-related absences and the injuries (and both sides had made two substitutions before the start of the second half), it may be that the openness is inherent in both sides. Bayern’s line is high—and functioned far better in the second half—and that means that it is always taking a calculated gamble. No matter how good the press, how much pressure put on the player in possession, balls played in behind its defensive line, particularly given the pace of Neymar and Mbappé, will always be a threat.

Neymar and Mbappé, meanwhile, perform their defensive duties only intermittently. Neymar was ferocious in the first half, less so in the second. Even with the hard-working Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler in wide positions, that applies stress to the midfield. The longer the second half went on, the more relentless Bayern became, and the more exhausted PSG looked.

The equalizer glanced in by Thomas Muller from Kimmich’s free kick had felt inevitable long before it arrived on the hour mark. 

But however weary PSG may have become, Mbappé remained a threat. Draxler and Di Maria began the break and Mbappé finished it superbly, shaping to shoot in at the far post before dragging his finish between Jerome Boateng’s legs and in at the near post instead.

By the end, Bayern had racked up 28 chances to PSG’s six. The defending champion could perhaps feel a touch unfortunate. But any side that has such an obvious flaw, that defends so badly as a collective, is vulnerable. Bayern must score at least twice in Paris next week to go through, but on the evidence of this game, it’s hard to believe PSG will itself not get at least one on the counter. This is a second impressive away win in a row in the Champions League for Mauricio Pochettino’s side following its rout of Barcelona at Camp Nou. For all of PSG’s struggles domestically, where it's second to Lille in Ligue 1, it’s starting to look like a serious European force.