Bayern and PSG deliver breathless mayhem to prove why Champions League format should never change

Miguel Delaney
·5-min read
Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain celebrates at Bayern Munich (Getty)
Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain celebrates at Bayern Munich (Getty)

After a game for the ages, that was in-keeping with the breathless mayhem of the modern Champions League, it is worth pausing to consider a shift.

There is a trend from the competition’s history that would previously have been rather ominous for Bayern Munich. In 66 years of the European Cup and Champions League, there have only been nine occasions when a team has lost a first leg at home and still gone through. It is usually an almost impossible challenge.

The fact that three of those occasions came in the 2018-19 season, however, illustrates how the competition has changed. An away leg doesn’t carry the same sense of awe. The old tactical calculations of European football have evaporated in a new era of openness.

It is why, as big as this victory appeared for Paris Saint-Germain - especially with the way they followed a 4-1 win away to Barcelona with a 3-2 win away to the European champions - it still feels a little difficult to read too much into it.

On another night, or with Robert Lewandowski in the team, Bayern could have taken any number of their chances to win heavily. They could still do that in the second leg. That’s how often they opened PSG, and that’s how open this tie still is. Bayern will fancy their chances, having already created so many. The venue is by now almost irrelevant.

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Some of that is a consequence of what the competition has become, from a combination of different factors.

The nature of these super-clubs is that they could go pretty much anywhere and score five times, in a way that would be almost alien to some of the greatest teams in the competition’s history.

That isn’t to say they’re “better”. It’s that the context has changed. The Covid-19 crisis, and the fact the teams are playing in empty stadiums, and has only amplified this.

There is certainly an interchangeability as regards venue and fixture, to go with the fact that the biggest sides have the assurance to go and express themselves anywhere.

That reality may yet lead to further changes in the Champions League, that very much aren’t for the better.

Getty Images
Getty Images

In the current discussions about the competition's future format, it is as if the super-club officials have misread that “interchangeability”, and what actually makes games like this.

One of the core tensions of those negotiations is that they want to recreate the spectacle of that 3-2 win in Munich much more often. They don’t see why they can’t have that kind of “content” before Christmas, and a huge stream of it.

This is why we have this preposterous Swiss model away, that will see big clubs play more often.

It’s just that competitive context, and tension, are among a precious few elements in sport that aren’t interchangeable in any way. They are very specific to special occasions, an organic product of the way natural play just progresses.

What really elevated this match, and pushed it to such heights, was not the mere fact of two super-clubs meeting. It was the jeopardy of those super-clubs going out. It is something so gloriously unique to the Champions League latter stages, because of the unique prestige of the competition and what it represents.

These are the games that decide and define legacies, so bring out more from the clubs’ abilities. The stakes inspire the stars, and lend weight to what they do.

It is why Kylian Mbappe’s brilliant winning goal means so much more, and will live so much longer in the memory, than utterly forgettable strikes by Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi against each other’s teams in the group stage.

This can’t be instantly recreated. It can only come with the way a season develops, and stories grow, in the manner the final day of a golf major is enriched by what came before.

This is also the difference between content and true competition, and a contradiction that lies at the core of 21st century elite football.

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As one figure who has been involved in such discussions once put it to The Independent, the goal of business is to kill all competition, but the goal of sport is to recreate competition every season.

It is that tension that directly informs the current negotiations, and the crisis about the direction of the future Champions League.

Many in the game believe that the super-clubs just want to generate endless content, which is what these pre-Christmas Swiss model matches would be.

They would be big games, without any of the great elements that make their “content” actually worth watching; that make them memorable; that really amplify the legacy - and, by extension, the commercial image - of these clubs. They are total misreadings of what this competition is, why it's so adored.

Hence the suggestions of ludicrous ideas like legacy spots in the Champions League.

Put bluntly, the idea is to eliminate the very threat of elimination that really makes this competition.

It is the contradiction inherent to the conversation.

It is why sport needs to be run, and decided, by those who are only guardians of the sport; who aren’t motivated by other concerns.

That is in principle of what the modern Uefa wants to be. There are just too many powerful influences from outside, and among the super-clubs.

There is a certain irony that Bayern Munich and PSG are two of the clubs that would prefer to preserve the current model.

They gave a grand exhibition of why, with the promise of even more to come.