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The unfancied four: A first-time finalist awaits in UEFA Champions League

Since the rebrand and reformatting of the UEFA Women’s Champions League (from the UEFA Women’s Cup) for the 2009-10 season, the showpiece final has routinely pitted the best against the best in Europe. As Lyon and Wolfsburg — the Barcelona and Real Madrid of women’s soccer — are usually the last two standing, the finals have gotten rather predictable. The two have met in two of the past three finals.

It is usually when the two heavyweights clash earlier in the competition (as they are at the quarterfinal stage this season) that the draw opens up for a new challenger. The only other team left in the final eight that has reached the final before is Paris Saint-Germain who, if they can come back from a two-goal deficit against Chelsea, will go on to face the winner of Lyon vs. Wolfsburg. The other four teams on the other side of the draw, guaranteeing there will be a first time in finalist in June.

All but out after the first leg of the quarterfinals, LSK are the second Norwegian team to reach the last eight in the modern era, and first since Røa in 2010; kind draws have been a rarity for Norse teams in recent years. Although Toppserien is a league on the rise that has seen a notable recent investment and sponsorship with OBOS, LSK’s quarterfinal clash with Barcelona has come too soon for the Norwegian champions, the effects of that investment a long way from being felt yet. LSK was always set to be on the backfoot, running a part-time (but also, the most professional in Norway) set-up. They are also yet to start their domestic season, the side not having played a competitive match since the start of December.

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Joerdeli Photography

Able to dispatch their opposition with ease and put a firm foot in the next round, Barcelona are the only side of the unfancied four to have reached the semifinals before. The Catalan side was humbled by Paris Saint-Germain two seasons ago. Liga Iberdrola not a traditional powerhouse of women’s soccer in Europe. If Barcelona could reach the final, they would bring a level of legitimacy to the league with them. No Spanish team has ever reached the final before.

Without a league title since 2014-15 (having finished second in the league for the last three years), Barca have had far more joy in Europe than their domestic counterparts. (Atlético Madrid, yet to reach the last eight, was knocked out of both the Round of 32 and Round of 16 by Wolfsburg as well as Lyon in the last 16 in their first season in Europe). Barcelona are the most likely team to smash through the current Franco-German duopoly.

On the other side of the coin, Bayern Munich and Slavia Praha remain finely poised for the second leg, an audacious strike from Kateřina Svitková enough to keep the Czechs in the tie after a dominant 90 minutes from the Bavarians.

Like Barcelona, Slavia (also current league runners-up rather than champions), are no strangers to the last eight, this season marking their third quarterfinal in four years. They were knocked out of their last two Champions League campaigns by Lyon and Wolfsburg. A firm and resolute side who did well to keep Munich at bay and close off all major traffic routes for 90 minutes, Slavia account for about half of the Czech national team (Sparta comprising the other half, with a handful of exceptions), but would still be the most surprising of the four to reach the final in Budapest.

Bayern are one of the more in-form teams in the quarterfinals, having restarted their league campaign this year with a win over Wolfsburg and slashed the gap at the top of the Frauen-Bundesliga down to nothing – goal difference alone separating them from the current champions.

With a top-heavy team, Bayern have finally addressed their scoring problem and have been laying waste to teams up and down Germany for the last year and a half. Former German champions, the Champions League has remained the uncrackable nut for Munich, who have risen to the top of the league as historic big dogs FFC Frankfurt and Turbine Potsdam have lost a lot of both their bark and their bite over the last few years.

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Lady Luck has not been on Bayern’s side when they’ve stepped onto the biggest stage in Europe, the Bavarians knocked out of the competition by the away goals rule over two of the last three seasons. The outlier was their only other quarterfinal appearance when they were taken apart by PSG at the Parc des Princes in 2017.

If Bayern can navigate their second leg against Slavia and, what could potentially be a breathless 180 minutes against Barcelona, their (potential) presence in the final would only cement Germany as the ultimate driving force in European women’s soccer. While Lyon dominate their opposition, their league and this competition, it’s the Frauen-Bundesliga that has consistently kept pace, firing out UWCL finalists; German representatives have only absent from three (2002-03, 2006-07 and 2016-17) of the 17 total Champions League and Women’s Cup finals. For his last season in charge, Thomas Wörle may yet lead the Bavarians to the treble – the FBL, Pokal and UWCL trophies not held by a German team at the same time since Ralf Kellermann’s Wolfsburg picked up their first major honors in 2012-13.

With all the first legs done and dusted, the weightier side of the draw has WSL champions Chelsea with a clear advantage over PSG, and Lyon with a nose ahead of their perennial rivals, Wolfsburg. The winner of the repeat of last year’s final will still the overriding favorite to lift the trophy in Budapest next month, no matter who they face in the semifinals or final.


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