Europe gets the women’s Champions League

IT WAS an astonishing occasion and a landmark for women’s football – 91,500 people watching the Champions League quarter-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid. This crowd owed as much to the enduring appeal of El Clásico as it did the appeal of the women’s game, but it also underlined the fact Barcelona are the best in the world right now.

When the two clubs met in the first leg, the crowd was just 3,318 at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium. Clearly there was a lot of marketing around the second leg and despite the weather, it worked. The crowd of 91,500 even put the men’s Clásico – crowd of 86,422 – into the shade. If the rain had held off, they might have had even more people in the Camp Nou as they had sold 99,000 tickets!

Most of the Champions League quarter-finals had promising crowds. Apart from that Real-Barca first leg, the smallest attendances was the 5,018 that went to Arsenal versus Wolfsburg at the Emirates. What a pity the game, involving the only English club left in the competition, could only attract a sub-10,000 gate. By WSL standards, 5,000 was a very decent crowd, but switching to the Emirates should have attracted a much better turnout. Over the two legs, Arsenal’s answer to Wolfsburg’s high-octane approach – along with the way Chelsea were dismantled by Barca last season – reminded the WSL it still has some way to go, despite its preference for hiring big names.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain drew over 27,000 against Bayern, Juventus versus Lyon in Turin (the appointed venue for the final) was watched by 9,000-plus and Wolfsburg’s second leg win against the Gunners had a crowd of 11,000. 

Of course, the competition is the pinnacle of the club game, so it should be well supported, but it should not overlook the fact crowds are still not flocking to bread and butter league games. Barcelona Feminí usually play in front of less than 3,000 at their home games. They have won all 25 of their league fixtures, scoring an average of more than five per game and have conceded just seven goals.

The average crowd across the Women’s Super League is around 1,600 but France’s top division barely draws 1,000 per game, although Lyon have an average of 4,500. Germany is trailing at present and its average this season is 700 with Eintracht Frankfurt the best supported at 1,300. 

The WSL gets a lot of publicity, but general interest still seems lack lustre compared to the enthusiasm for the women’s national team. The Football Association’s ambition of 6,000 crowds for the WSL by 2024 looks a considerable ask at the moment and the pandemic may have put back that aspiration by a year or two. Hosting the European Championship this summer may provide a boost, but will the expected upsurge interest extend beyond internationals?

It is hard to see anyone stopping Barcelona from retaining the Champions League trophy they won so impressively last season. They have lost just one league game in three seasons and they are packed with star names, such as Alexia Putellas, the 28 year-old midfielder who fulfilled her dream as a young girl of playing for Barca. She’s also Spain’s most-capped player. Barca also have Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway), Jenni Hermoso (Spain), Irene Paredes (Spain), Lieke Martens (Netherlands), Aitana Bonmati (Spain) and Mapi León (Spain) in their squad.

Barcelona meet Wolfsburg  and Lyon and PSG provide an all-French tie in the semi-finals. These are four of the top five teams in Europe according to UEFA’s club co-efficients, so the quality couldn’t really be any higher. These should get the turnstiles clicking again.

Women’s Super League is compelling but should ditch big stadia for now

THE BEST game of the international weekend was arguably Arsenal Women against their London rivals, Chelsea. The Women’s Super League (WSL) was back and the media coverage was intense and expectations higher than normal. Games were played at Tottenham’s gleaming new home, the Emirates, good old Goodison Park and Brighton’s Falmer Stadium, but these grounds didn’t really do the WSL justice.

For a start, the crowds seemed on the low side – maybe attributable to the pandemic – and the TV images revealed games being played in vast, empty arenas. The average was around 3,500 but in places like the 60,000-plus Emirates, even 8,000 looks like a tiny gathering. It’s easy to see why they play WSL games in these prestigious locations, it underlines the importance of the league and gives both players and fans a lift. But is it really necessary? 

Surely it is more advisable to have 3,500 in a modest but comfortable venue than a huge ground devoid of atmosphere? The same argument used to apply to both the FA Vase and FA Trophy before the introduction of Non-League Finals Day. Some would argue that just being at a prominent venue raises the profile.

The London derby attracted the biggest crowd, 8,705 to be precise, and the action was excellent. Arsenal hosted the WSL champions and were the better outfit against a very suspect defence. Emma Hayes, the Chelsea coach, seemed a little fractious and uneasy before the game and afterwards she was complaining about the lack of VAR in the stadium.

It is slightly amusing to see the women’s game adopt some of the habits of the men’s game in the form of cliché-peppered interviews, but one aspect where the WSL is certainly not copying the men is in the spectator reaction to “taking the knee”. There was no jeering, no cynicism, just warm applause. Nevertheless, listening to post-match comments highlights that football remains, after all, a game of cliché and jargon no matter who is playing it.

The dynamics of the women’s game are also starting to look remarkably similar – in the past four seasons, the top three has been unchanged, although the order has jumped around. It’s all about Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, with Manchester United coming up behind them. In short, it is becoming almost as predictable as the Premier League, but then is that a surprise given the economic resources available at these clubs?

The quality of the Arsenal v Chelsea game demonstrated the WSL is on an upward trajectory in terms of technique, but it should be remembered these two clubs shop around the world for their talent. Across the two starting line-ups, there were 12 different nationalities, including Arsenal’s new signing from Aston Villa, Mana Iwabuchi, the 28 year-old Japanese forward who has won 81 caps for her country. 

Arsenal signed some other notable players in the summer, including Nikita Parris from Lyon, Simone Boye Sørensen of Bayern Munich and Tobin Heath, a two-time World Cup winner with the USA, from Manchester United. Chelsea acquired Dutch defender Aniek Nouwen from PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United’s Lauren James, the sister of England international Reece James.

One of the indicators of how the WSL, and women’s football in general, have progressed is public awareness. Increasingly, generalist fans are aware of some of the big names in the game, notably the England regulars like Steph Houghton and Fran Kirby and the American icon Megan Rapinoe. With the emergence of more women pundits, we have seen the rise of the excellent Alex Scott as well as Karen Carney and Eni Aluko. 

Gradually, the WSL will become part of the footballing diet of more fans and the top players will become as household as Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. It will take time, and patience will be a prerequisite, but the foundation is now in place. 

Another decent World Cup or European Championship would reap multiple benefits, not least in attracting more men to women’s games, which may be the only way that crowds will grow substantially. With access to tickets at top clubs becoming so restricted these days, there is a marketing opportunity for excluded fans of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham to seek their entertainment at WSL games. The theory is similar to youth and development football at these clubs, but at present, too few die-hards extend their support of a club beyond the first team.

Arsenal were very much the better and more savvy side against Chelsea and they took the lead through Netherlands international Vivianne Miedema, who evaded Jessica Carter and shot past Ann-Katrin Berger, who should have done better in stopping the effort. Chelsea levelled just before the break through Erin Cuthbert’s low drive after being set-up by Melanie Leupolz.

Arsenal showed no sign of being deflated by that timely goal and in the 48th minute, Beth Mead ran through and sent a favoured left-foot shot past Berger to restore their lead. Mead was in good form and scored her second goal in the 60th minute, receiving the ball from Iwabuchi and rounding the keeper to stretch Arsenal’s advantage. It looked very offside and the presence of VAR would surely have confirmed that. Little wonder Emma Hayes complained that no technology at the ground felt as though they were being treated like “second class citizens”.

Chelsea were not finished yet and Denmark’s Pernille Harder, in the 63rd minute, produced a bullet header right out of the coaching manual to reduce the deficit. It wasn’t enough for Chelsea to save the game, and so Arsenal’s new coach, Jonas Eidevall, was able to enjoy a winning start to his WSL career. 

The meeting of Arsenal and Chelsea is always one of the WSL’s standard-bearer games, so the Gunners will feel as though they have gained, for a while at least, the upper hand on their rivals. But it is just matchday one, there’s a long way to go, and Manchester City also won 4-0 at Everton, reminding the London teams they are back in the saddle as they hunt down the silverware.


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.