Bayern vs Liverpool: Why tense, goalless Champions League ties are relics of a bygone era


In the build-up to Wednesday, there will naturally be a lot of talk about Liverpool’s last European Cup meeting with Bayern Munich in 1981, but that’s not the only throwback. There’s also the very situation. It neatly fits Liverpool’s sense of motivation that the Anfield first leg from that famous 1981 victory was also 0-0, just like now, but that isn’t a scoreline you see nearly as often these days.

In fact, you barely see it at all in the Champions League knockout stages. Liverpool’s 0-0 with Bayern and Barca’s at Lyon were actually only the second and third since 2015-16.

And if the way those blanks came on the same tense night three weeks ago fostered a feeling that good old-fashioned defending was returning to the tournament, the tidal wave of drama from the last week washed that away.

Chaos currently reigns in this competition, especially when it comes right down to it. The spectacular comebacks by Ajax and Manchester United may have helped make history as they became just the seventh and eighth teams to go through after losing a home first leg – with United also the first ever to overturn a 2-0 home deficit – but they were very much in-keeping with recent trends, and helter-skelter events like Barcelona’s own destruction of Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus-Real Madrid last season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer very much tapped into this new spirit before the Parc des Princes last week. It is why Juventus still feel they have a chance even against a defence as defiant as Atletico Madrid’s.

It used to be the case that continental ties were really just too cagey and tight for such upheavals to happen. And this was pretty much the case for close to four decades, from the mid 1970s to around 2008.

You only have to look at something as rudimentary as per-game scoring records. They began to fall to 2.5 levels from 1975 and rise again from 2008, to the point last season was 3.2.

The years in between, which were pretty much the majority of the competition’s history and a spell that still condition thinking about it now, just saw much more restrained football. It was all so much more calculated and minimalist, as if the rarefied air of the stage was so precious that teams would just first seek to stay involved. This was also when Liverpool reigned, and made such a virtue of this approach in so many victories. Back in that 1980-81 campaign, by which time Liverpool were such seasoned and experienced European champions, Paul Breitner actually criticised their first-leg performance at Anfield as “lacking imagination”.

It really just lacked any gaps. It was all so watertight.

We’re all familiar with those matches, where any single openings – and especially away goals – felt all the weightier and more significant because of how harder-fought they were.

This is specifically why such recent comebacks feel so particularly spectacular now. The way European football has been played for the majority of its history ensured they were close to impossible.

Leads of 2-0 were close to locks because any semi-competent European side gave so little away.

Liverpool couldn’t find a way past Bayern’s defence (EPA)

No more, and it does make this week’s two 0-0 ties all the more interesting, as to whether there will be much of a swing.

The reasons for the wider swing to more sweeping attacking football are of course obvious. The manner in which Pep Guardiola’s appointment at Barcelona drastically changed global football tactics – so restoring but also revitalising and super-charging attacking and pressing – has been much discussed on these pages. But the very TV mega-event that it has become also feels relevant to this. It has bred familiarity with the super-clubs and their stadiums, somewhat diluting the old sense of awe that used to come with them. We now see them all the time, and teams play them so much more often. When that happens, the old caution just feels out of touch. Teams have a better idea of what they’re stepping into.

So, a Liverpool led by a German in Jurgen Klopp travelling to Munich with a 0-0 in 2019 is very different to Liverpool travelling there with a 0-0 in 1981.

Some of that should also apply to Lyon going to Barcelona.

Andy Robertson is one Liverpool player who expects a very different game to the first leg, and alluded to some of the recent Champions League chaos his own side have brought.

“Last season we were good away from home in the Champions League, we caused teams problems and that’s what we need to do again. It will probably be a different game, they’ll need to come out a bit more, their fans will demand they try to create.

“It’s all about trying to keep them out first and foremost and then hopefully we can take the chances we get and do enough to get through.”

It’s just that it’s now very difficult to say what “enough” is in the Champions League any more, especially when 2-0 away leads and 4-0 home leads have proven insufficient – and that for the most prominent clubs.

Defensive caginess has gone. Attacking chaos reigns. So, sheer entertainment looks far likelier this week than more ensnared football.

This is no longer a competition that takes so much to break teams down. It just keeps giving.

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