UEFA Champions League: Bayern Munich, and quite rightly

IN RECENT years, Champions League finals have not been dull but this one was a little on the uninteresting side at times, definitely not the goal feast some people suggested it might be. To put it into context: Bayern, in 50 games prior to the final, were involved in just three games settled by a single goal. PSG a couple more. Between them, they had scored 292 goals and conceded 82. Little wonder the pundits were predicting a game of net-bulging thrills and spills between two of Europe’s wealthiest clubs.

But it wasn’t to be. This wasn’t one of those grim finals that characterised the 1980s and almost every game involving an English team, but it didn’t live up to expectations. Neither did Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, the world’s most expensive front line. Bayern had two thirds of the possession, but they managed only two shots on target, one less than Paris Saint-Germain.

Damp

After the excitement of the previous games in Lisbon, which have been compelling by any standards, this was something of a damp squib of a final for the uncommitted. Much better to remember how Bayern pulled apart Barcelona, Chelsea and Tottenham earlier in the year-long 2019-20 season to benchmark the strength of the new champions. As for PSG, for all the talk of them “returning to win the trophy in the future”, this may have been their best opportunity spurned.

You only have to look at how almost a decade has passed since Pep Guardiola’s last win 2021 when he might be able to lift the huge trophy once more, or Barcelona’s string of recent let-downs. Champions League success is not cyclical, it is not easily attained and competition is fierce. The current PSG team, the creation of an impatient regime, may not be given the time to return and conquer, but it is worth noting this was the first time they had come up against a genuine peer in the knockout stage – teams like Dortmund, Atalanta and Leipzig are not in the same group as Bayern.

Kingsley Coman, a former PSG player, scored the winning goal on the hour, a nicely-taken header from Joshua Kimmich’s perfect cross. Coman’s inclusion in the team, at the expense of Ivan Perisic, was justified by his overall performance, the 24 year-old certainly overshadowed the bigger names on the field.

Coman became the first player to score an outright winning goal since Arjen Robben for Bayern against Borussia Dortmund in 2013 as well as the fourth Frenchman to score a winning goal in the European Cup/Champions League. All finals since then have either been settled by more than one goal or in the case of 2016, on penalties. The last 1-0 final, there have been 16, was in 1998 when Real Madrid beat Juventus 1-0.

Coman, who expressed his mixed feelings about scoring against his old club, a French club to boot, represented a contrasting figure to the sun king that is Neymar. He was a forlorn figure at the end, disconsolate, the heir apparent to the Messi-Ronaldo axis who has yet to tick all the right boxes. As the figurehead of “Project PSG” he looked like a man who had found a centime and lost a € 100 note. Will he be around for another attempt?

Future

Maybe not at PSG, but this is not a player who has an empty trophy cabinet at home: five league titles, five domestic FA cups, one Champions League, one Copa Libertadores and 101 caps for Brazil (61 goals). Yet he was signed to make PSG European champions, as were the ever-changing roll-call of managers. The ego has taken a bruising, nothing else, at worst, Neymar will move on, trousering a huge salary and signing-on fee. But will Neymar’s hobbling coach, Thomas Tuchel, survive this setback?

Bayern, who replaced their coach with Hansi Flick, and rediscovered their mojo, have looked like Europe’s best side for the past few months. They are worthy champions, exciting, fast, venomous in front of goal and they have the best centre forward in football at the moment in Robert Lewandowski. When the 2019-20 season started, he was 30, he has just turned 32! He netted 55 goals in 47 games, including 15 in the Champions League. But the final largely belonged to Bayern’s younger set – with the exception of man of the match Manny Neuer -and with the likes of the excellent Alphonso Davies just 19, the future looks bright for Bayern. When did it last look anything but?

But let’s have no talk of the new Bayern era or any “best ever” claims. Football is getting a little tedious in its culture of “presentism”. Manchester City 2019 and Liverpool 2020 have both been declared all-time greats and critics and now wondering if Bayern can be stopped. This year, no, but any one of their peers could perform an upset against them – even teams considered to be outside the elite band. That said, Bayern are normally eliminated by the eventual winners – as in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015 and 2014.

Bayern’s victory, the sixth in their illustrious history, will be seen as the lesser of two evils by those who retch at the mere mention of modern football’s corporatisation and state involvement.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA Images

UEFA Champions League: The gulf at the gate

THE UEFA Champions League draw has become an event in itself and provides a curtain-raiser to the next 10 months of action involving Europe’s elite working their way towards the final stages. For half of the entrants, the competition will end in December, but we can expect the usual suspects to qualify for the knockout stages when things really do get interesting.

While the Champions League will prove attractive from the perspective of delivering an absorbing spectacle, attracting big crowds and mass media interest, the real cachet of the competition for most of the participants is the potential financial rewards. For some of the smaller clubs, the Champions League cash provides them with differentiating income that can give them an advantage in their domestic league and possibly help secure qualification again for 2020-21.

Matchday income is a vital component of the Champions League experience and the difference between the clubs is vast, ranging from Borussia Dortmund’s huge crowds – average 2018-19 of 80,000 – to Dinamo Zagreb’s average crowds of just over 4,000.

Of the 32 clubs in the group stage, only four drew average crowds of over 60,000 during last season – Dortmund (80,841), Barcelona (75,600), Bayern (75,000) and Real Madrid (60,564). A further seven had an average of 50,000-plus, including Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City. Tottenham, with a gate of 54,216 are the highest crowd-pullers of 2018-19 from England, although Manchester United, Arsenal and West Ham – none of whom are in the Champions League this season – all had bigger attendances.

The clubs that were in the highest seeded pot, with the exception of Juventus (an average in 2018-19 of 39,244) all enjoyed crowds in excess of 40,000. Of the eight top seeds, four are playing in new stadiums, those still in their traditional homes are Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain.

Over half of the 32 teams played in front of less than 40,000 in 2018-19. The 17 in this category include Juve, Valencia, RB Leipzig, Napoli and Galatasaray. Three had average gates of less than 10,000 – Zagreb, as mentioned, Shakhtar Donetsk (7,470) and RB Salzburg (9.474).

If nothing else, these figures prove that giant status is all relative and behemoths come in all shapes and sizes. For example, Red Star Belgrade is a huge name and a European Cup winner. Today, their average audience is around 12,000 but there is no more passionate sight than a Belgrade football crowd.

In terms of crowd potential, however, the most attractive of the eight groups has to be G, which includes Barcelona (75,600), Borussia Dortmund (80,841), Inter Milan (58,789) and Slavia Prague (13,511).  Some people are calling it this season’s “group of death”, but in terms of UEFA Co-efficients, the toughest group appears to be D (Juventus, Atlético, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotive Moscow), which has an average co-efficient of 22.75 points. Barca’s group has some huge names, but Inter and Slavia are both relatively low in the ratings.

The seedings often seem bizarre in these draws, such as Real Madrid being potted lower than, for example, PSG, Chelsea and Zenit St. Petersburg. Real have been placed in group A with PSG, a club that has gone out of the competition in the last 16 for the past three seasons. Real, by contrast, have won three of the last four Champions Leagues.

Last season’s finalists, Liverpool and Tottenham, should get through their groups. Spurs have to face Bayern Munich, a team in transition and one that fell short of its normal performance in the competition. Manchester City will surely be one of the favourites after their treble-winning season in 2018-19. They have one of the less strenuous groups. Chelsea, back in the competition after a year out, have to face Ajax, Valencia and Lille. There are no easy games in this group. The most evenly-balanced group could well be G, though, which includes Zenit, Benfica, Lyon and Leipzig. Difficult to see who will emerge from that quartet.

You don’t need algorithms or slide rules to work out who will feature in the closing phase in 2020. While the Champions League provides arguably the best quality football in the world, the imbalances which plague domestic football also exist in this sport of kings – just consider that Dinamo Zagreb’s average crowd is just 5% of the usual gathering in Dortmund. How can that be a level playing field, even with the most generous prize money on the planet?

@GameofthePeople

Lyon are fancied, but PSG have most of the cards

IT’S all getting a little too predictable in France, with Paris Saint-Germain winning six of the last seven Ligue 1 titles and no real sign of the dominance ending. The financial advantages the club enjoys, means PSG should win everything – hence the club’s owners have an obvious sense of expectation and occasional impatience.

Should there be a genuine contender, it might just be Lyon, who have been busy strengthening their squad and have the look of an exciting team. But in all probability, PSG will be too strong even though they will surely lose Neymar before the deadlines close.

PSG’s wage bill dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1. There are 10 clubs in the division whose budget is less than € 50 million, in other words, less than 10% of PSG’s wallet. Nimes, the team PSG beat on the opening weekend, have a wage bill of just € 27 million. Neymar’s wages at PSG come to € 36 million, to provide even more perspective.

In 2012-13, PSG’s budget was € 300 million, with Lyon second with € 145 million. In 2019-20, the budget is reported to be € 580 million versus Lyon’s € 310 million, in other words, the financial gap has actually got bigger.

So, too, is the gulf on the playing field. PSG won Ligue 1 with 91 points and more than 100 goals. In second place was Lille, 16 points behind. In their six recent title wins, PSG’s average margin of success has been 13 points, the best being in 2015-16 when they were 21 better off than Lyon.

Everyone now knows that PSG can win the title at a canter, but their “holy grail” is the Champions League. For any team other than PSG to win the title, they have to hope the Parisiens take their eye off the ball or their big stars fail to shine. Lyon, or any other team, will have to over-perform for a prolonged period of time and it is doubtful they have the squad(s) to do that.

Since PSG joined the financial super league, French football has attained a higher profile, but from having five different champions between 2008 and 2012, PSG’s reign has only been interrupted by Monaco in 2017. The last team to dominate before PSG was, ironically, Lyon, who won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles between 2002 and 2008.

France, to be brutally frank, needs a more balanced league and in the long run, PSG require more competition in order to keep themselves sharp and motivated. The domestic platform does not equip the club appropriately for European football. This may explain why PSG have consistently fallen short in the Champions League – playing the role of flat-track bullies, week-in, week-out, cannot possibly prepare them to face the continent’s elite. Put simply, PSG are unused to being pushed until they meet the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid and hence, they fall at the difficult hurdles.

Can this change? Monaco’s 2017 triumph shows that with the right collection of players, surprises can still happen in France. Lille’s second place last season was something of a shock, but they have lost their talismanic wide man, Nicolas Pépé to Arsenal. Lyon took a couple of their players, Youssof Koné and Thiago Mendes, so they might be weaker in 2019-20. Lyon did lose Tanguy Ndomebele to Tottenham Hotspur for € 62 million, Nabil Fekir to Real Betis (€ 20 million ) and Ferland Mendy to Real Madrid (€ 48 million) but that has not dampened enthusiasm for the team’s prospects.

As well as a host of signings, Lyon have a new coach in Sylvinho, the former Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester City full back. Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s president has taken a bit of a gamble in sanctioning the appointment of Sylvinho, especially as the outspoken Aulas has gone on record to say he really wanted a head coach who understood the DNA of the club. Sylvinho has no links with OL., but newly-hired general manager, Juninho Pernambucano, is a club legend. There was, at one point, talk of Arsène Wenger returning to French football with Lyon, while Rafa Benítez and José Mourinho were also linked with the club.

Lyon’s strength is their front line, which includes Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembélé and Bertrand Traoré, all of who are 25 or younger. CIES Football Observatory values this trio at around € 210 million and there was interest in former Celtic man Dembéle from Premier League clubs in the summer, but the club was insistent he was “going nowhere”.

Dembéle was on target in Lyon’s first game, a 3-0 win at Monaco, Memphis Depay and Lucas Tousart scored the other goals. Sylvinho was delighted with the outcome: “I hoped my team would play like this, there’s always improvements to be made, but I am happy.” Lyon’s approach was cautious, despite Monaco losing new signing Fabregas to a red card, but an emphatic away win was the ideal start for the Brazilian coach.

President Aulas is looking for Lyon to close the gap on PSG but has a realistic timeframe of 2022. “In the medium term, the goal is to get closer to PSG and we will continue to invest. We have to be patient, it is a project of three to five years. Given the budget gap between the two clubs, 2022 is reasonable.”