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Bayern Looks Unbeatable. But Can Mbappé Push PSG To Champions League Glory?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Well, we made it, Grace and Ryan. The finale of what has been an eventful and unexpected (to say the least) European season will take place this Sunday when Bayern Munich plays Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon in the UEFA Champions League final. Back in mid-February, before the Round of 16 started, the FiveThirtyEight soccer model gave Bayern a 33 percent chance of making the final and PSG an 18 percent chance; those were the second and fifth-highest odds of making the final, respectively. So, let’s start there: How surprised are you that this is the matchup we ended up with?

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I’m not surprised by Bayern at all. I think everyone had them there or thereabouts. For PSG, the big factor that I didn’t understand was how such a long break would impact them — France did not restart domestic football this summer unlike most of the rest of Europe. And the answer seems to be extremely positively.

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): Bayern is Bayern — no real surprise there. The question with PSG has always REALLY just been: Can they keep their best players healthy for the eight games that matter? They finally kept their best players healthy — possibly because they had half-a-year off from playing — and well, here’s the result.

grace: Hearing rumors the human body requires rest.

tchow: Yeah, Kylian Mbappé returning healthy, or somewhat healthy, to the lineup seems to have made a huge difference for PSG. No surprise there.

ryan: Emmanuel Macron is the Billy Beane of soccer.

grace: I’m not sure I’d prioritize this if I were a French voter, but one World Cup and possibly a Champions League is a great record for the Macron administration.

tchow: Our model gives Bayern Munich a 64 percent chance of winning their sixth Champions League trophy. Based on what you two just said, I don’t think any of us would be surprised that Bayern are favorites here. How impressed have you been with their performance in the tournament this year? Dispatching Lyon 3-0 is one thing. Beating Barcelona 8-2 is another thing entirely.

ryan: I feel like they’re the ultimate example of how an elite team should play against teams it’s better than: allow for lots of chances on both ends of the field to iron out the variance. Better teams win more often when there are more shots, and Bayern is better, from a talent perspective, than just about anyone.

tchow: I feel like this is a dig at Manchester City, but I can’t tell.

grace: I’ve weirdly been both very impressed and concerned by Bayern. Against Barcelona, it seemed very obvious their high line could be exposed by anyone remotely quick, but Barça had no speed in the forward line. In the Lyon match, Lyon really did create chances — 1.6 expected goals by FiveThirtyEight’s model — but Bayern just dominated in every other aspect. Against PSG, uh, Mbappé and Neymar are pretty good at running into space.

tchow: In that semifinal game, if Lyon had been able to finish those earlier chances, I think you would be hearing a lot more about Bayern’s high defensive line.

ryan: I see that 64 percent and think it’s too high. Feels like a coin flip to my brain, which admittedly is much worse at predicting performance than the FiveThirtyEight model. PSG does seem like an especially bad matchup for Bayern, though they’re a bad matchup for … everyone.

grace: With all due respect to Lyon’s Memphis and Karl Toko Ekambi, who really caused Bayern problems without quite being able to do the damage, PSG can run those counters again but with much better players.

ryan: PSG also was even on shots with RB Leipzig in the semis. They seem a little more comfortable with not totally controlling a match by traditional means.

tchow: This final game will actually feature the two teams with the highest goal differential in the tournament this season. That 8-2 win over Barcelona skews things a bit, but Bayern Munich has a goal differential of +34 while PSG is +20. Are you expecting a high-scoring game on Sunday?

grace: I think so. Both teams want to leave space in behind and also devastate the opponent on the counter. I’m optimistic here.

ryan: I’m scarred by so many disappointing finals that my initial impulse is to say that any game we expect to be high-scoring will, therefore, not be high-scoring.

tchow: Ryan, I felt that. I actually can’t remember the last final where both teams scored more than one goal.

grace: I think the potential big factor is if PSG plays both Ander Herrera and Idrissa Gueye. That could give them a level of midfield control to muddy up this game when needs be.

Whereas with Bayern, it seems like manager Hansi Flick just sees his typical starters as his best lineup come rain or shine.

ryan: There hasn’t been a Champions League final where both teams scored at least twice since 2005. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I think there will be goals. Bayern will concede chances (almost by design), and Bayern is absolutely going to score, too. This really has the makings of an absolutely fantastic game.

tchow: Let’s have some fun here and get into the nitty-gritty a bit. If you were PSG manager Thomas Tuchel, playing against Bayern, what would be your starting XI on Sunday? I’m all for Team Chaos, so feel free to go wild here.

ryan: Eric Choupo-Moting up top, for starters.

grace: Ryan Guardiola.

ryan: It me.

tchow: Choupo-Moting deserves the start after saving that game against Atalanta. Good pick, Ryan.

grace: The only change I’d make is Gueye for Marquinhos, but I expect Tuchel will stick with the same lineup.

ryan: I’m with Grace. I think Leandro Paredes, who started for Gueye against RB Leipzig, gives them some necessary passing. Frankly, I’d just run back the lineup from the semis — unless Keylor Navas is somehow healthy enough to play in the final.

grace: Yeah, Tuchel has found the right balance here. Just … leave it, Thomas.

tchow: What about for Bayern? If you were Flick, would you make any changes to try to counter PSG’s attack?

ryan: I wonder if he’ll consider sliding Joshua Kimmich back into the midfield next to Thiago (and replacing Leon Goretzka), with Benjamin Pavard coming in at right back.

grace: I think he wants both a passer (Thiago/Kimmich) and a runner (Goretzka) in midfield. This team has done everything he wants from it, so I’d just keep it the same.

tchow: If it ain’t broke …

grace: The question for me is less who Flick plays than what they’re doing. They were so high against Barça, and that was the correct approach to squeeze the game since Barça had nothing in behind. Lyon is all about running in behind and … Bayern was really high again.

If they could just drop off a little bit, I’d put them as clear favorites here.

ryan: Sometimes in the Champions League, you’ll see two great teams come up against each other, and then it’ll just end up being a huge blowout because these teams aren’t used to playing against teams that are as good as them. The two-leg structure usually helps a bit with that, but neither PSG nor Bayern had to play against the likes of City or Liverpool to get here. I wonder if we could see some kind of seismic result on Sunday because of that.

Like, there’s a chance that Bayern’s way of playing just … doesn’t work against a truly elite team. Same could be true of PSG, but I’m less convinced of that.

tchow: Ryan, you mentioned Keylor Navas earlier. PSG has allowed the fewest goals in the tournament so far, but that was with Navas in goal for the majority of the time. I think that injury could really be something to keep an eye on.

grace: I do think it’s within the realms of possibility. David Alaba is suddenly an amazing center back! Or he just hasn’t really been exposed yet.

ryan: He did briefly kick the ball into his own net against Barcelona.

grace: I know I’m just a stats nerd who never played the game, but it seems like kicking the ball into your own net is usually a bad idea.

tchow: What I’m sensing here is both of you now predict an upset. I did not see this coming, but is it fair to say?

grace: Yeah, I put PSG as slight favorites here. Giving up 1.6 xG against Lyon and expecting your attack to solve everything is great against Lyon. It might not be great against Neymar and Mbappé.

ryan: I lean PSG, too. They’re underdogs, sure, but they’ll also probably have the two best players on the field on Sunday: Mbappé and Neymar.

tchow: Ryan, your inbox might be flooded with angry emails from Bayern Munich fans with a comment like that.

grace: The entire nation of Poland has closed the tab on this chat.

ryan: Sorry, Canada!

tchow: Poland has a point though. Robert Lewandowski IS going to score. It is written. Not sure the same can be said about Neymar.

grace: This is FiveThirtyEight: We’re bound to say that Neymar should just keep kicking the ball the way he does, and one will probably go in at some point.

ryan: Per FBRef, ol’ Ney has 1.7 xG over the past two games. Most teams wouldn’t be able to recover from their star not scoring two goals’ worth of chances, but he’s really done just about everything else. He had four goal-creating actions — involvement in the final two actions before a goal — and PSG scored five goals. That’s … pretty good.

tchow: All right let’s wrap this up with some predictions just for the hell of it. Give me your scoreline predictions and Man of the Match picks.

ryan: Gimme PSG 3, Bayern 2. Mbappé for MOTM — the pattern of this game just seems like it’ll be ideal for him to go off.

grace: Damn, exact match. 3-2 to PSG. Mbappé MOTM. If there is any player on Earth who is going to exploit this space behind, it is Kylian.

tchow: You two are no fun.

ryan: We both predicted five goals! That’s fun!

grace: We’ve got a team that’s amazing at everything except protecting for fast players attacking into space, against the best player in the world at attacking into space in Mbappé. This should be fun.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.

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