The last time Mauricio Pochettino faced Bayern Munich in the Champions League, his Tottenham Hotspur team were thumped 7-2. Pochettino’s players could not get close to the German champions on that occasion so he must have taken considerable personal pleasure, if he found time to think about such things, from this relentless brawl of a match in Munich.
It takes a certain type of bravery to attack a team of Bayern’s class in the way that Pochettino’s PSG did at the Allianz Arena. It also takes a certain calibre of player to succeed with such an approach, and in Kylian Mbappe and Neymar they had two individuals capable of sticking more than a few daggers into the heart of the German side’s defence.
Fresh from outshining Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, in the previous round, Mbappe turned his attention to the world’s best team. His two finishes were further proof of his world-class ability and yet another reminder that he is fast becoming the world’s most devastating attacker, if he is not already there.
Between Mbappe’s goals there was so much action that it would require a book or two to detail it all. Marquinhos scored PSG’s second, before Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Thomas Muller both struck for a Bayern team that played with an intensity and intent that bordered on recklessness.
Such was the speed of this game, for a brief moment it made you think that a European Super League might not be such a horrendous idea after all. Here were two of the continent’s great heavyweights, going for each other’s throats under the swirling Munich snow, and it was as breathlessly exciting as anyone could expect.
The conditions did nothing to slow it down in the first half. PSG looked to exploit the home side’s high defensive line at every opportunity while Bayern, without star striker Robert Lewandowski, passed with all their usual menace and intensity.
The eye-wateringly high starting point of Bayern’s defenders was a fundamental reason for their success last season, when they beat PSG in the final. It requires courage and impeccable timing to execute such a strategy, though, and they lacked both in the first few minutes, when they seemed spooked by the pace of Mbappe.
Of all the players in Europe, Mbappe is perhaps the best suited to exploiting such space behind opposition defences. Once he goes, he won’t be caught. And he went early here, peeling away after Neymar had cruised through the middle. Neymar’s disguised pass was perfect, and Mbappe’s finish squirmed past Manuel Neuer in the home side’s goal.
There were only three minutes on the clock at that point but Bayern had already created a chance of their own, with Choupo-Moting glancing a header onto the bar. Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka and Benjamin Pavard all went close in the next few minutes, before Choupo-Moting missed a close-range opportunity which Lewandowski would have buried ten times out of ten.
All the while, there was reason for Bayern to be afraid at the other end. Neymar was in one of his more dangerous moods and it was his cross that caught out Bayern for the second time. The defence was slow to push up, allowing Marquinhos to slot his finish past Neuer.
Marquinhos is the leader of this PSG side, the defensive stalwart, and it was no coincidence that Bayern looked more likely to score after he was then forced off through injury. Pavard crossed from the right wing and Choupo-Moting, at the third time of asking, provided the crucial touch.
The Bayern striker was a PSG player this time a year ago, having joined the French side in 2018 following a largely forgettable spell at Stoke City, of all places. He is no Lewandowski (scorer of 42 goals this season) but he was certainly busy against Pochettino’s side, throwing his body around and occupying defenders.
Bayern made two substitutions before half-time, which said plenty about their struggles to get a grip on the occasion. But Hansi Flick knows what he is doing, and Bayern were soon swarming all over the white shirts, even if they needed Neuer to prevent Neymar from scoring a third from close-range.
The equaliser was coming and it was Muller, never one to shrink on the big occasion, who headed home from Joshua Kimmich’s delivery. The pressure was so intense that it seemed inevitable that PSG would concede more.
But the pendulum was to swing again, this time back in PSG’s favour. Another counter-attack, another chance for Mbappe, another away goal for the visitors. As he had done against Barcelona in the previous round, Mbappe cut inside from the left before rifling home his finish.
The three away goals made for some achievement for PSG, although the wild nature of the match means there can be no predicting what might happen in the second leg. All that can be said with certainty is that, if it is anything like the first game, it will be worth watching.