The objection with modern elite teams is that they only play half the game, that they are so dominant in their national leagues that they forget how to defend, or just don’t bother to do so. But the result is matches like Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final and a rematch of the August final in Lisbon. It was chaotic, hectic, often brilliant, and tremendously fun.
It must be doubtful that any team can win the Champions League defending like this. Logic suggests that the advantage lies with more balanced teams like Manchester City and Chelsea. Or maybe the attacking power 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 defensive deficiencies allowed it.
The question in last season’s Champions League final was whether Bayern’s top line would be vulnerable to the beat of Kylian Mbappé. Bayern, however, were absolutely at their peak then and maintained such a compact form that PSG controlled themselves with relative comfort. Here, however, it took Mbappé just three minutes to score. Bayern have not been defensive at their best this season, conceding 35 goals in 27 league games, and were horribly exposed when Joshua Kimmich was cut off by a simple loss on the left side of midfield. Neymar went ahead and slipped into Mbappé, whose shot passed to Manuel Neuer.
What followed was fascinating. Bayern, their unbeaten streak in the Champions League now spanning 19 games, was threatening, sometimes brilliant, going forward. Keylor Navas made a series of good saves. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, the former PSG striker who was called up to replace the injured Robert Lewandowski, had headed off the crossbar even before PSG took the lead. And yet, despite all the dominance of Bayern, for all the time spent around the area, all the counterattacks 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. August’s almost impenetrable form had vanished.
PSG had already ruled out an effort due to a tight offside when Marquinhos added the second. Bayern had struggled early on dealing with set pieces, and when they half cleared a corner after 28 minutes, two defenders were left behind as everyone else pushed. The result was that Marquinhos was offside when Neymar threw a cross into the box, and it ended calmly.
But within seconds he was forced to leave due to a groin injury. Ander Herrera entered, but the defensive reorganization left PSG short in height behind. Within five minutes, an unmarked Choupo-Moting had headed for Benjamin Pavard’s cross.
Even taking into account the COVID-19-related absences and injuries (and both sides had made two substitutions before the start of the second half), it may be that the opening is inherent to both sides. Bayern’s line is high, and it worked much better in the second half, and that means it is always taking a calculated bet. No matter how good the press is, how much pressure it exerts on the player in possession, the balls that are played behind his defensive line, especially considering the pace of Neymar and Mbappé, will always be a threat.
Neymar and Mbappé, meanwhile, perform their defensive functions only intermittently. Neymar was fierce in the first half, less in the second. Even with workers Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler in open positions, that creates stress in midfield. The longer the second half dragged on, the more ruthless Bayern became and the more exhausted PSG seemed.
The draw seen by Thomas Muller from a Kimmich free kick felt inevitable long before it was on time.
But no matter how tired PSG is, Mbappé is still a threat. Draxler and Di Maria started the break and Mbappé finished it superbly, preparing to shoot at the far post before dragging his shot between Jerome Boateng’s legs and at the far post.
In the end, Bayern had accumulated 28 chances to PSG’s six. The defending champion could perhaps feel a bit unfortunate. But any side that has such an obvious flaw, that defends as badly as a collective, is vulnerable. Bayern must score at least twice in Paris next week to get through, but from the evidence from this game, it’s hard to believe that PSG don’t get at least one on the counter. This is the second impressive home win in a row in the Champions League for Mauricio Pochettino’s team following their loss to Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Despite all of PSG’s struggles at the national level, where it is second to Lille in Ligue 1, it is starting to look like a serious European force.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.