Never has the UEFA Champions League experienced delays like those caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with Sunday’s final set to be played almost three months after its originally intended date. Despite that, this Bayern Munich team should etch their name alongside other legendary lineups if they beat Paris Saint-Germain, who are set to make their debut in the tournament’s decider.
Those who would doubt Die Roten suggest this edition of the Champions League will long remain a topic of debate, the asterisk alongside it suggesting the victor will always come off second-best compared to other revered teams.
Quite the opposite should be argued, in fact, considering the complications that can arise during a pandemic. The same detractors might suggest the transition to single-leg knockout fixtures runs in favor of the bigger outfits, but there’s reason to debate a neutral venue with greater clarity of what’s required in 90 minutes actually gives an underdog the advantage.
The trajectory of this Bayern squad was set up to contest rare heights before it ousted Rudi Garcia’s Lyon from the running—something neither Juventus nor Manchester City could accomplish—and even before it battered Barcelona in an unprecedented 8-2 quarter-final win.
It was Bayern’s staggered start to the 2019-20 campaign that inadvertently helped to reform a sleeping giant, and the fact Hansi Flick didn’t start out the season at their helm only lends itself to the legacy.
But this rebirth isn’t comparable to a story like Roberto Di Matteo, who took over Chelsea in March 2012 and led the club to a Champions League-FA Cup double inside three months, feeding off the scraps left by predecessor Andre Villas-Boas. Rather, Flick has feasted on what was laid in front of him following the departure of Niko Kovac as manager in November 2019, and he now sits on the precipice of a treble in his first season as a senior coach.
Bayern have already broken records en route to reaching this season’s final, and it speaks volumes that more milestones lie in wait despite the campaign being shortened in the wake of COVID-19. They’re already the first team to win their first 10 matches in the same Champions League season, and they could become the first to triumph in every match from start to finish if they do so inside 90 minutes at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon.
Flick has had a tremendous impact in reviving certain club ideals, as well as the form of individual talents, Thomas Muller being the prime example of a star re-born under his command. But one talisman who required no such rejigging is Robert Lewandowski, who has failed to score in only eight of the 46 appearances he’s made in all competitions this season. Eight.
His 55 goals in that span equates to an average of 1.2 goals per game, the best ratio of his career to date and the kind of numbers we grew used to seeing when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were at the peak of their powers:
The striker started the season scoring 16 goals in his first 11 Bundesliga games, and it would be fair to say he’s the one player whose theoretical absence may have prevented Bayern from clinching an eighth straight league crown (becoming the second team to crack 100 points in the process). Other key stars such as Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich and Manuel Neuer have again proved themselves elite in their respective positions, but Lewandowski is the sole example of being irreplaceable to their cause.
And still, Flick has succeeded in making this a Bayern team who are focused on the entire organism. In PSG, they’ll face a side unabashed in building itself around select individuals like Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, but Guillem Balague told BBC 5 Live Sport of the unified dynamic that makes Bayern such a threat:
Pundits often tout Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona (2008-12) or the AC Milan side that lost to Liverpool that night in Istanbul (2005) as being some of the best in modern football. Both examples were replete with players in or approaching their primes, and the same can be said for a Bayern squad boasting 12 players between the ages of 25 and 32 (five of whom are 30 or older).
Of the current crop, five played the whole 90 minutes against Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund when Bayern last lifted the Champions League trophy in 2013: Neuer, Muller, Jerome Boateng, David Alaba and Javi Martinez. All save for Martinez have played critical roles seven seasons later, while Lewandowski has since crossed the divide to become one of Bayern’s most seasoned veterans.
Yet there’s an infectious exuberance to this Bayern that’s also symbolic of great teams gone by. Gnabry, Kimmich, Kingsley Coman and Niklas Sule—all 25 or younger—each have their best years ahead of them, while 19-year-old left-back Alphonso Davies epitomises this ideal that age is a non-factor as long as you’re good enough, as Daniel Storey told The Totally Football Show:
Recovering from the chaos caused under Kovac was Bayern’s first step in getting back to equilibrium. But the constant improvement since could take this team clear of even Jupp Heynckes’ previous iterations, largely viewed as the best the club has ever produced.
Flick has even succeeded in turning loanees Ivan Perisic and Philippe Coutinho into important members, each having previously dithered along as part of the furniture at the Allianz Arena.
The task that awaits them in Lisbon will be their greatest test of the term, irrespective of the fact this will be PSG’s first taste of a Champions League final. The contrast between each team’s reaction after advancing to the decider demonstrated more than anything the Germans’ modest approach to the occasion, sacrificing none of their energy in lieu of a bigger prize around the corner:
Separate from the records smashed along the way or the romance of their comeback under first-time coach Flick, it’s perhaps that addiction to winning that makes this Bayern as intimidating as any other that’s come before. The current team can underline a deserved spot alongside the sport’s best with victory on Sunday, and there’s little reason to think their trophy hunt can’t continue for years to come.