UEFA gets its Clásico in the Women’s Champions League

THE decline of Barcelona in the men’s game means UEFA won’t be getting the hoped-for Champions League clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona, but the two clubs’ women’s teams will meet headlong in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in March 2022.

Holders Barcelona will face Real in a quarter-final draw that is looking remarkably like business as usual. The women’s game is rapidly resembling the men’s version in terms of elitism, with Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Real Madrid all in the last eight, along with women’s football giants Lyon and Wolfsburg and current Super League leaders Arsenal.

Of the eight clubs, three (Barca, Wolfsburg and Lyon) have appeared in every last eight in the past five years, while another three (Bayern, PSG and Juve) have been in four. In a short space of time, the women’s game has evolved to elitism when it took decades for the men to reach that stage. Much of that is attributable to the emergence of big established clubs entering the field and providing the financial and cultural support to move their women’s teams forward. It is also down to the progress made by women’s football and its shift into mainstream media coverage. The attendances for domestic league games are still very low, but the profile has definitely been raised over the past few years. While this is good at the higher levels, the near instant shift into elitism may not be especially beneficial for the overall rise of women’s football. The Women’s Super League has really developed in a three-way between Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Looks quite familiar, doesn’t it?

At the top, there is no denying the standard is improving all the time and the current European champions, Barcelona, look very impressive. In the Guardian’s top 100 players in the world, Barca had 13 representatives, including the number one, Alexia Putellas. Barca won the Spanish Primera División by a margin of 25 points in 2020-21 and scored a phenomenal 167 goals in 34 games. Real Madrid, in their first season in the name of the parent club, finished second but are way behind their rivals.

The biggest shock of the competition so far was the elimination of Chelsea, the English treble-winning team managed by Emma Hayes. Chelsea were thrashed 4-0 by Wolfsburg to go out in the group stage. Hayes was distraught but later explained her team was suffering from the stress of the new wave of covid-19 and players were unwell. Chelsea recently won the FA Cup for 2020-21 by beating Arsenal 3-0 and put on a scintillating display in the process at Wembley. However, since that win, they have struggled to score goals and have been below their best. Chelsea have a star-studded team and had nine players in the Guardian 100, including Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder.

The meeting of Real Madrid and Barcelona is undoubtedly the eye-catching draw for the quarter finals, but all four ties have something special about them, with Bayern meeting PSG, Juventus playing Lyon and Arsenal clashing with Chelsea’s conquerors, Wolfsburg. It is hard to look beyond Barca, who have a 100% record in the league and have scored 75 goals in 13 games. They scored 24 goals in six Champions League group games and conceded just one. This is one of the most dominant teams in the world at the moment as Chelsea and Arsenal have found out in 2021.

UEFA Women’s Champions League: Lyon under threat from French rivals

LYON have dominated women’s football in Europe for the past decade and have been European champions for the past five years. But this season, they are facing a challenge from, among others, their national rivals Paris Saint-Germain. The two teams are neck-and-neck at the top of D1 Féminine and they will face each other in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League.

Lyon have lost only three league games in the past 10 years (including 2020-21) and they’ve all been against PSG. Lyon have been French champions for an astonishing 14 consecutive years, but PSG, with their considerable resources, are now eager to capture their crown.

But there is a problem. PSG have been hit by the covid-19 virus and had to forfeit their round of 16 second leg tie with Sparta Prague, losing 3-0 as a result. They still went through as they had won 5-0 in the first meeting. PSG have also had to shut down their academy due to the pandemic. 

PSG have some outstanding players, though, notably the free-scoring duo Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani. Katoto is a fast performer who is rapidly developing into a prolific goalscorer, while Diani is a lightning-quick winger. They also have one of the best goalkeeper’s in women’s football in Christiane Endler of Chile.

Lyon have a star-studded squad, in fact in the Guardian’s top 100 women players, they provided 11, many of which were highly-placed. They include the indomitable figure of Wendie Renard, the club captain and arguably the best centre back in the world. They also have Nikita Parris, the former Manchester City striker who has been capped 50 times by England.

Lyon and PSG and most of the last eight in the Champions League are part of the elite of women’s football in Europe. These clubs accounted for 63% of the Guardian’s top 100 and are able to attract all the top talent. Almost 16% of the participants in the FIFA World Cup in 2019 came from these clubs, with Chelsea and Manchester City providing 12 players each.

They are also regulars at this stage of the competition: Lyon, Wolfsburg and Barcelona have all featured in every last eight over the past five years, with PSG and Bayern missing one and Chelsea and Manchester City present in three. Just as the men’s Champions League has a remarkably familiar look about it, the women are moving in a similar direction.

Barcelona versus Manchester City is another exciting tie, the first leg of which will be played in Monza, Italy. Barca are top of the Primera División having won all 19 of their games so far. They are nine points clear of Levante, but their goalscoring record is incredible –  95 for, three against! Barca’s firepower is thanks to the exciting Spanish international Jenni Hermoso and Asisat Oshoala of Nigeria. 

City, meanwhile, have the England pair Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood in their ranks, both arriving from Lyon. They joined a plethora of England internationals at the club, including Steph Houghton, Ellie Roebuck, Chloe Kelly and Ellen White. 

City are chasing the Women’s Super League title alongside Chelsea and just two points divide them. Chelsea face Wolfsburg in the Champions League, a tie that gives Denmark’s Pernille Harder, rated the best player in the world, the chance to face her old club. Harder was signed by Chelsea in September 2020 for a world record fee of £ 300,000. 

Wolfsburg are currently behind Bayern Munich in the Frauen-Bundesliga after four consecutive titles (all of which saw Bayern in second place). Bayern are five points ahead, but Wolfsburg have lost just once, a 4-1 defeat in Munich. The loss of Harder, along with a long-term injury to Polish striker Ewa Pojor has made life difficult for the German champions. Despite these obstacles, Wolfsburg’s Alex Popp is still among the top players in Europe.

Bayern Munich meet Swedish club FC Rosengård of Malmö, the 11-times winners of the Damallsvenskan. Bayern may yet repeat the achievement of the men’s team this season and pull-off the treble: Champions League, DFB Pokal and Bundesliga. Vital player Lina Magull is their skipper and is now back in the side after injury, but Bayern have some stand-outs in 20 year-old Sydney Lohmann and defender Hanna Glas.

It’s a formidable last eight and although it’s full of the usual suspects, we could see a new winner of the Champions League. Chelsea and Manchester City are desperate for European success and PSG are longing to take over from Lyon. And of course, there’s Bayern. It promises to be a compelling set of matches.