With Robert Lewandowski likely to miss the return leg against PSG, the Cameroonian has to step up in front of goal in Europe and domestically
When Bayern Munich halved the deficit against Paris-Saint Germain last week, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s evident bellow was, in part, down to netting against his old friends but, greatly, due to how a missed opportunity early on could have changed the course of the tie.
The Cameroon frontman had hit the woodwork from a Joshua Kimmich corner in the opening two minutes and Kylian Mbappe punished that failure seconds later to put the Parisians 1-0 up which changed the entire tone of the game in the Munich snow.
Admittedly, it would be unfair to blame what transpired on the striker, who was selected to deputise for the legendary Robert Lewandowski, due to the difficulty of that early header. If anything, the ex-PSG forward’s effort – an improvised back-of-the-head flick – was inventive and probably deserved to go in owing to the quick-thinking and execution.
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Much of the pre-game talk focused on the absence of the Poland striker and how the Bavarian giants were going to replace a frontman who’s netted 35 Bundesliga goals this term, 10 higher than the second top scorer in Europe’s top five leagues—Cristiano Ronaldo.
FC Hollywood revealed on Monday that the near-unplayable centre-forward completed his first running session but is still expected to miss the reverse fixture in Paris; a huge blow, but an eventuality they prepared for once he returned from the international break with that knee injury.
Observers speculated over Flick’s approach in dealing with Lewandowski’s layoff at the time, with the option of Thomas Muller acting as the false nine mooted.
However, the fact Choupo-Moting has featured in the three games since the hiatus gives reason to believe the Central African striker will play up front for the injury-hit European champions until Europe’s most prolific frontman returns.
The post-mortem following the defeat immediately cited the forward’s absence as the major factor in their first home loss in all competitions since November 2019, and it’s hard not to understand why. Bayern’s campaign has been characterised by an over-performance of their expected output and their top scorer has epitomised that statistic, scoring his 35 league strikes from expected goals of 24.2, a difference of nearly 10 xG.
Chances have been conceded at the other end, too, but the team have generally outscored the opposition with regularity, to the abhorrence of neutrals who loathe FC Hollywood’s domestic hegemony. Without the Pole, whose tendency to score out of nothing is supreme, they always faced an uphill task against last week’s visitors.
Lewandowski’s greatness and quality mean Bayern will always be presented with the quandary of being incapable of acquiring a substitute forward close in excellence and the consequence has been laid bare in the last few games.
This is not a slight on Choupo-Moting, still, there’s no shame in admitting the 32-year-old isn’t quite at the level of the Poland international.
According to Understat, Flick’s team have recorded xG of 0.60 and 0.81 in their two recent league games vs RB Leipzig and Union Berlin respectively, their two lowest returns this term. Conversely, in the Champions League defeat by Pochettino’s men, their xG of 3.1 from a staggering 31 shots ought to have been enough to claim a first-leg victory.
However, their finishing was off-kilter in tough conditions — they missed four of their six opportunities recognised as ‘big chances’, with the Cameroon striker missing one — prompting observers to rue their high-scoring number nine’s absence.
Given the debatable nature of home advantage with fans absent, Flick’s troops will back themselves to mount a comeback in Paris against a PSG side that have shown they have a soft underbelly on home turf (they’ve suffered three Ligue 1 defeats in 2021 alone) and were surprisingly shaky in the first half of their round of 16 second-leg elimination of Barcelona.
Be that as it may, Lewandowski has largely elevated a flawed Bayern side this term in a way that Choupo-Moting may struggle to do, which raises questions over their chances of progressing in Europe and maintaining the lead over Leipzig in the Bundesliga, although they have a healthy advantage at present.
The soon-to-turn 33-year-old’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, especially as their quarter-final opponents welcomed back Neymar before the first-leg, with their CL title on the line and with Julian Nagelsmann’s team looking to pounce on any slip-up.
RBL cut the lead at the top to five points at the weekend and could have further reduced the gap to two points before Bayern travel to third-placed Wolfsburg who are unbeaten at the Volkswagen Arena in 13 league matches.
In fairness, it would require a cascade of muck-ups for the Bavarians to throw away their current advantage in the league, particularly as Nagelsmann’s team tend to dispiritingly drop points from time to time. Regardless, stranger things have happened, and the second-placed team will aim to stay consistent with six games to play.
Flick is at a crossroads in dealing with the Lewandowski situation: risk his top forward in Paris and at Wolfsburg this weekend in games that could have ramifications on major silverware still up for grabs or trust in Choupo-Moting for both encounters.
The latter will be a vote of confidence in the Cameroonian and it’ll be up to him to prove that, despite not matching the Pole’s excellence, he can thrive in Bayern’s critical week at home and Europe.