A Look Ahead to the Champions League Final, and Why PSG Should Never Say Never

With the 2024 UEFA Champions League final set, we take a look at how Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund got here, keys for each side, and a look at a handful of UCL ‘almost’ sides. 

The Kings of Europe versus an oft-cast aside club that won’t go away. It will be a tasty UEFA Champions League final indeed.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, 14-time tournament winners Real Madrid are the early favorites to take home the crown, but Borussia Dortmund are used to being dismissed and were counted out from the very beginning of their campaign, as Mats Hummels was quick to remind us.

June 1 will be the first time these two sides meet in a UCL final and it will be a game packed with intrigue.

How Did We Get Here?

The journey to the final for these two sides couldn’t be more contrasting. Real Madrid were drawn in Group C with Napoli, Union Berlin, and Braga. At face value, this was a straightforward task for a team as experienced and loaded as Madrid, and that’s pretty much how things went. Six games, six wins, 16 goals scored, and only seven conceded.

On the contrary, Dortmund faced an immense task having to battle PSG, Newcastle, and AC Milan in Group F; otherwise known as this year’s group of death. At the time, you would have struggled to find a non-BVB fan that picked them to make it to the knockouts. PSG’s overwhelming wealth and talent, Newcastle’s re-emergence, and AC Milan’s pedigree didn’t matter whatsoever to Dortmund, who topped the group with 11 points, losing only once.

The story of this achievement was their defense. Despite scoring only seven goals through the six group games, Dortmund conceded just 4, the second-fewest in the tournament at that point. That defense is exactly what carried them to the final.

Dortmund were grateful to be on the “right” side of the draw, avoiding Real, Bayern, and Manchester City among others. The round of 16 saw them comfortably dispatch PSV before a barnstormer quarterfinal with Atletico Madrid. After defeating Atleti 5-4 on aggregate, they once again showed their defensive steel in back-to-back 1-0 wins over PSG to book their ticket to Wembley.

Things were far from simple for Real Madrid. A nail-biting 2-1 aggregate win over Leipzig was followed by an even more anxious penalty shootout triumph over defending champions Manchester City. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, Los Blancos left it until the 88th minute of the second leg against Bayern to pull the rabbit out of the hat again behind a Joselu brace that no one saw coming.

Looking Towards Wembley

There is no shortage of fascinating storylines for this final. In Real Madrid’s case, it’s Jude Bellingham facing off against his former employers in his home country. The 20-year-old’s career so far has been lifted right off a Hollywood script, and he could potentially write a new act in his first matchup with the team that put his talents on display for the world. He left Dortmund less than a year ago, and fans will still hold him in high regard, but come final time, there will be no love lost.

On the opposite side, there’s the rejuvenation of Jadon Sancho after being exiled at Manchester United, with the Englishman having a chance to rub salt in United’s wounds. But it’s hard to look past Marco Reus. For so long he’s been Dortmund’s main man, and on numerous occasions, he turned down big money moves to stay true to the Yellow Wall. Reus announced recently that this would be his last season in Dortmund, and there would be no better way to sign out than with the trophy that’s eluded this team for so long.

In the end, this feels like a game of that old cliche, the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. It will come down to how well Dortmund can hold firm and deny Madrid the space to play, but with the firepower Los Blancos hold, the task looks bleak. It seems almost played out at this point to speak about how good Madrid are when it matters, but it’s too ridiculous to ignore. BVB could play a perfect 90-plus minutes come June 1, and even then it might not be enough.

Whether it’s a 15th UCL crown for Real Madrid or a storybook end to Dortmund and Reus’ unbelievable story, the Champions League final is as mouthwatering as ever.

My prediction is 1-0 to Real Madrid.

The ‘Almosts’

mbappe psg

Outside of the finalists’ circle, no team is as dejected as Paris Saint-Germain. In what was perhaps its best chance to hoist the elusive UCL trophy, the club fell short once again.

PSG couldn’t find the net in either leg of the semifinal, despite posting a staggering combined 4.95 xG mark and outshooting Dortmund by a tally of 44-20, per FotMob. The club has thrown all the money in the world to win a Champions League, and with Kylian Mbappe announcing he’ll be leaving the club at the end of the season, their title window might be closing.

PSG though, are by no means the only team that’s seemingly never been able to get over a specific hump in football, despite a wealth of talent. It’s worth remembering that teams like Bayer Leverkusen this year, which seem to pull out a result at every possible moment without fail, are few and far between.

Real Madrid in the UCL, Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, Liverpool in 2018-20. These are teams that have an air of certainty and assuredness that strike a feeling of the inescapable into their opponent.

PSG, when the chips are down, evoke the opposite feelings. However, let’s look at two other sides that had similar struggles in football.

The first team that springs to mind is of course Tottenham Hotspur.

A League Cup win in 2007-08 was their last major trophy, the only one this millennium. This is despite having several great teams and world-class players during the past few seasons. The Luka Modric and Jermain Defoe led squad of the late 2000s to early 2010s; Gareth Bale’s emergence to superstardom not long after, and even the Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min iteration; none of these teams could find a way to get wins when it truly mattered.

In the 2018-19 UCL season, Spurs looked like they would finally put the narrative to bed. Beating Manchester City in the quarterfinals went a long way to convincing naysayers that this team could be different. The manner in which they won their semifinal tie, against a brilliant Ajax side, swayed even more to the stance that Spurs were really about to put their “bottlejob” moniker to bed.

Unfortunately for Spurs fans, it wasn’t to be. Liverpool went on to win one of the more uneventful UCL finals in recent memory, and Tottenham haven’t had a meaningful cup run or league title challenge since.

One more team that famously could never get over the hump was ironically Bayer Leverkusen, or as they were formerly known “Neverkusen.”

Their roster in the late ’90s to early 2000s was quite impressive. Zé Roberto, Lùcio, Michael Ballack, and Dimitar Berbatov headlined a handful of uber-talented rosters that somehow couldn’t bring home any silverware.

The 1996-97 season was Leverkusen’s highest-ever finish to a domestic campaign when they were runners-up to Bayern Munich by only two points. This was perhaps the beginning of the narrative though, with that being their first of three second-place finishes in four years.

bayer leverkusen

Losing the 1999-00 Bundesliga title on the final day didn’t help, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was their 2001-02 campaign.

A historic treble attempt fell apart in the last month of the season when they lost their lead atop the league and failed to regain it on the final day, once again finishing second-best. They went on to lose both the DFB Cup final and Champions League final in the same week to Schalke and Real Madrid respectively, and the Neverkusen name looked set to stick forever.

Perhaps their triumph this season will be comforting to PSG fans; there really is no such thing as “never” in football and European glory will surely favor the Parisians one day.

Leave a Reply