Champions League shows women’s football is also dominated by the elite

THE UEFA Women’s Champions League 2022-23 has reached its penultimate stage and the four remaining clubs are all familiar: Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona and Wolfsburg. Although the cast is slightly different to the men’s game, it is very clear the women’s game is encountering the same problems in terms of a small group dominating domestically and on the European stage. The big difference is that it has taken a relatively short time for women’s football to reach the same level of polarisation. This is not a positive.

In the past five years, only 15 clubs have reached the last eight of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Seven of them have done it at least three times, eight have done it once. Lyon, Wolfsburg, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have been ever present since 2018-19. Lyon have won four of the last six and the only other winner is Barcelona.

This level of superiority expands into the domestic leagues. Of UEFA’s “big five”, Juventus have won the last five Serie A Femminele titles and Chelsea, Lyon and Wolfsburg have won four of the last five at home. Barcelona have won the last three Liga F championships. This is a reflection of the unlevel playing field in women’s football and also the arrival of the monied clubs of Europe. Wind the clock back a few years and the dominant forces were not necessarily the big-name clubs from the world of football. Teams like Kvinner, Rosengard, Fortune Hjørring and Brøndby have all had to step aside for the uber clubs.

In order to build a fully-rounded diversity model and to further exploit the financial potential of female sport, the corporate football world has embraced women’s football with no small amount of enthusiasm. Some clubs, such as Manchester United and Real Madrid, were late to the party, but United are now challenging for the Women’s Super League title. The quality has risen and it is now receiving the profile it has been craving.

By comparison to the women, the men’s Champions League has seen 22 different quarter-finalists in the past five seasons and only one club, Manchester City, has been involved in every last eight. City, along with Chelsea, United and Arsenal, are some way ahead of the rest of the WSL in terms of financial support and squad resources.

The semi-finals will see Chelsea and Arsenal play Barcelona and Wolfsburg respectively. For Chelsea, it is a chance to see how they now match-up to a side that thrashed them in the 2021 final. Barcelona are in awesome form in Liga F and are top of the table with maximum points and a goal tally of 99-5 in 23 games. 

Chelsea did well to overcome Lyon on penalties after looking on their way out at one stage, but they had to thank Norwegian Maren Mjelde for her 128th minute goal that took the game to a shoot-out. The first leg of the semi-final against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge should draw more than the combined 25,000 that saw the PSG and Lyon games at Chelsea’s home ground.

Arsenal have a tough task against Wolfsburg, who are chasing the Frauen Bundesliga and are one point adrift of Bayern Munich. They have the leading scorer in the league in Alexandra Popp, who has netted 12 goals. Arsenal are still in contention in the WSL, despite losing Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema to injury earlier in the season.

The women’s game in England could receive a big boost if at least one of the two London clubs makes it through to the final, which will be in Eindhoven on June 3. At the top end of the pyramid, all seems to be well, but the challenge has to be to close the massive gaps between clubs and to create greater competitiveness. It is surely young enough in its current form to avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by men’s football.

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