A Treble in a Trembling Europe

After a season of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UCL resumed and completed its fixtures, with Bayern Munich ending up at the top of Europe.

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Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar, runners-up medal hanging from his neck, walked past the UEFA Champions League (UCL) trophy in despair. Neymar couldn’t hold back from touching the trophy as he lined up, brought to tears, with the rest of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) to watch Bayern captain Manuel Neuer lift up the trophy with his victorious squad. After a grueling season of uncertainty, Les Parisiens failed to clinch the win in the UCL final against FC Bayern, which would’ve given them their first European Champion Clubs’ Cup.

After a five-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UCL resumed its Round of 16 fixtures on August 7, 2020 with several adjustments. Though quarterfinal and semifinal matches in the UCL typically involve two legs, the league adapted to the late schedule and decided on making the quarterfinals and semifinals one-match knockout games, creating a mini-tournament for the remaining teams at the beginning of August. The UCL matches in August were played in empty stadiums, removing the influential home-field advantage usually found in the final UCL stages, and players were required to wear masks on the bench. Stadiums were filled with deserted seats and no virtual fans, with crowd noises played through the broadcast instead of in the stadium. Rather than being held at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul as planned, the UCL Final was held in Lisbon, Portugal at the empty Estádio da Luz, home of S.L. Benfica.

Bayern faced grand changes even before the pandemic began. During the Bundesliga season, after an embarrassing 5-1 defeat against Eintracht Frankfurt in November 2019, Bayern fired their former head coach Niko Kovac, replacing him with then-assistant coach Hansi Flick as interim manager. Perhaps fired up by its slump, Bayern’s squad trained hard in their winter camp in January, ready to compete at full force. In a surprising turnaround, Bayern restored its glory, as it has now gone undefeated for 30 matches.

Continuing its win streak in the Round of 16, Bayern shut down Chelsea with an aggregate score of 7-1, dominating the second leg as they did the first five months earlier. Bayern then gained notoriety after it proceeded to demolish F.C. Barcelona in the quarterfinals with a final score of 8-2. Ready for anything, Bayern cruised by with a 3-0 win over Olympique Lyonnais, a French squad that finished seventh in Ligue 1 yet reached the UCL semi finals. Bayern’s final victory against PSG was its 11th consecutive win in the competition, setting the record for the longest consecutive winning streak in UCL history. Bayern won the Bundesliga title, the German League, and the UCL final, finishing their second European treble (in which a club wins its league title, main national cup, and main European trophy within the same season) in history, their last one being in 2013.

PSG made one of the best UCL campaigns in its history this year. It qualified for the semifinals for the first time in 25 years and made it to the final for the first time in the club’s history. The squad beat Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 16 by an aggregate score of 3-2, eliminating Norwegian star Haaland and his crew. PSG then fought in a close quarterfinal match against Atalanta B.C. and squeezed into the semifinals with two last-minute goals by Marquinhos and Choupo-Moting, overcoming Atalanta 2-1. After breezing by RB Leipzig with a 3-0 win in the semifinals to reach its first ever final, PSG faced the German undefeated superclub, Bayern Munich. Les Parisiens have spent large sums of money bringing top players to their squad in recent years, including 21-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappé and Brazilian superstar Neymar in 2017. These two players, along with Ángel Di María, form a fearsome front three, one that has brought PSG to new heights.

Fans and experts alike expected a high-scoring, exciting final prior to the match on August 23. Bayern’s offense seemed unstoppable with record-setting Robert Lewandowski, who has been deemed one of the best strikers in the world, leading the way. Not only did Lewandowski end the UCL as the top goal-scorer with 15 goals, but he also scored an astonishing 55 goals for Bayern Munich, 16 more goals than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues. PSG’s quick and deadly front three, on the other hand, seemed to pose a potential problem for Bayern’s back line, which primarily relied on beating attackers with speed.

The 2020 Champions League final started off balanced, with neither team getting any great chances on goal. Around 17 minutes into the match, Mbappé found space on the left wing and passed the ball forward for Neymar, who hit a well-placed shot on goal. Neuer, known as the best goalkeeper in the world, slid onto the floor with his legs spread out to cover as much as he could, but the ball slipped between his legs. The German legend wouldn’t let that ball go in, however, and managed to stop a potentially game-determining goal as he kept his hand behind his legs, hitting the ball out of bounds, only to have Neymar fail at an attempt to hit the ball back into the box. PSG had missed one of its best chances in the match.

Bayern responded quickly as only four minutes later, Alphonso Davies crossed the ball into the box for Lewandowski, who flawlessly spun around and struck at the goal. PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas lept toward the edge of the goal and was fortunate, with Lewandowski’s shot bouncing off the post.

After a few chances from both sides, including one in which Mbappé had a shot from directly in front of the goal that was saved and a seemingly missed penalty call, the first half was over and scoreless. PSG and Bayern were battling head-to-head, and rather than a high-scoring game, it seemed like whichever team scored the first goal would likely end up victorious.

Shortly into the second half, at the 59th minute, Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich whipped in a beautiful ball to Kingsley Coman, a graduate of the PSG academy, on the far post, who scored the game-determining goal off of a header to the opposite post. He had sealed the fate of the final. PSG was unable to break through Neuer’s expert goalkeeping for the remainder of the game, and as the referee blew the final whistle, the Bayern benches emptied onto the pitch in elation. Bayern Munich had won it all.

The match finished 1-0 to Bayern, ending PSG’s hopes of winning their first ever Champions League title. Besides the fantastic matches we saw this Champions League season, there may be upcoming changes and transfers that will completely transform the soccer competition in Europe. The UCL may decide to continue holding knockout rounds for quarterfinals and semifinals rather than two-leg fixtures after seeing the excitement this August. With key players in Europe like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, one of the greatest of all time, and PSG captain Thiago Silva likely leaving their current clubs, the tides may shift in the continent by the time we are watching the Round of 16 of the 2021 UCL competition. No matter where these players transfer to, we can most definitely expect many more unexpected wins, underdogs, and superclub champions in the upcoming season.