Few people will have bigger headaches going into this weekend than Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain’s defenders.
How do you stop Robert Lewandowski — or “LewanGOALski,” as Thomas Mueller referred to him when cracking his best dad joke — and Serge Gnabry? How do you stop Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria?
They are questions that no team in the Champions League has found an answer to so far this season.
Polish striker Lewandowski is having one of the greatest individual seasons in the competition’s history and sits just two goals behind Cristiano Ronaldo’s record haul of 17 in a single campaign.
Alongside him is Gnabry, who has developed from Arsenal and West Brom outcast into one of the finest attacking talents in Europe. The duo are now the most prolific in a single season in Champions League history.
Two more goals for Gnabry and another for Lewandowski in the 3-0 semifinal win over Lyon took their combined total to 24 for this season’s competition, surpassing the previous record of 23 set by Real Madrid pair Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in 2013-14.
READ: Why it’s now or never in Neymar’s quest for European glory
READ: Paris Saint-Germain reaches first ever Champions League final with demolition of RB Leipzig
For all of Bayern’s domestic dominance in Germany — it has now won eight consecutive Bundesliga titles — success in Europe has been hard to come by since its last Champions League triumph in 2013.
Pep Guardiola was hired just after that win but failed to replicate his European success at Barcelona, falling at the semifinal stage in each of his three seasons in Bavaria.
Making it past the last four had become something of a hoodoo for Bayern Munich; heading into its match against Lyon, the Germans had lost in each of its last four Champions League semifinals.
At the final whistle on Wednesday you could see what reaching the final meant to this group of players, many of whom have experienced seven years of Champions League disappointment together.
“It’s something special that we have achieved again today,” goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said after the semifinal win against Lyon.
“You could see that we had to put everything into it. Now we’re looking forward to the final against PSG. We’ve fought and worked for it for so long and we want to win this final.”
‘Here to make history’
Fortunately for PSG, it is one of the few clubs in Europe that can match — or arguably even surpass — Bayern Munich’s attacking talent.
Since Qatar Sports Investments bought the Parisian club in 2011, winning the Champions League has become nothing short of an obsession. More than one billion dollars has been spent on the playing squad, with the ambition of propelling PSG to a place among the continent’s elite clubs.
Those in Paris will certainly feel that is already the case, even without a Champions League trophy to show for its efforts. Whether the feeling is mutual around the rest of Europe’s top table is another matter entirely.
PSG has been threatening to upset the established order for quite some time, but has until now managed to spectacularly collapse when on the brink of doing so.
For all the millions spent and superstar talent purchased, it wasn’t enough to prevent two stunning capitulations; one against Barcelona in 2017 and again against Manchester United last season.
The memory of that incredible Champions League exit against Barcelona — in which PSG surrendered a 4-0 first-leg lead — was considered so painful that many said PSG would never recover from it.
But now here it is, 90 minutes away from the trophy its Qatari owners crave the most.
“We’re here to make history, we’ve already taken a big step and there’s one left,” Marquinhos, who scored crucial goals in the quarterfinals and semifinals, told the PSG website.
“It was an incredible performance [against RB Leipzig], we controlled from start to finish. Now, we have to do it again in the final.”
The Brazilian defender has become a cornerstone in PSG’s change in fortunes since that nightmare evening against Barcelona.
Coach Thomas Tuchel deserves credit, too, and has transformed this mentally fragile team into the most defensively sound in the Champions League this season.
It’s true that in Atalanta and RB Leipzig — both impressive and cohesive units, but without star players Josip Ilicic and Timo Werner — PSG could not have asked for an easier route to Sunday’s final.
But against Atalanta and in the earlier rounds against Borussia Dortmund, PSG has shown the kind of determination and mental fortitude that has been severely lacking in its European campaigns until now.
The camaraderie — on and off the pitch — seems to have improved too; rumors of a wantaway Neymar desperate for a return to Barcelona seem a distant memory, while the Brazilian’s chemistry with strike partner Mbappe is deadlier than ever.
PSG’s team as a whole has appeared more balanced in the Champions League this season and the victories over Atalanta and Leipzig will go a long way to healing the mental scars inflicted by Lionel Messi and co. and the Camp Nou.
“The atmosphere [in the team] is great,” Marquinhos said. “On the pitch, that makes the difference when you lose the ball. There is always someone who’ll sacrifice themselves for the other. Everyone defends, helps, lends a hand, everyone is striving for the same goal.
“It’s not only in the good times, because we have also had difficult times in which we’ve had to stick together. Now it’s a good time and we have to keep that unity. The defense has been our strength this year. I think a team has to defend well and be solid at the back to get good results.
“We have great players in attack, but we also have a solid defence and that really makes the difference. We know we’re going to score, we know our qualities up front, so if we can keep things tight at the back, it’s crucial, and we need to do that in the final too.”
Victory against Bayern Munich, going for its sixth European Cup and undoubtedly among Europe’s established elite, would finally provide the validation that PSG and its owners have been looking for.