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The key talking points ahead of the UEFA Champions League semifinals

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes waves to the crowd.
Photo Copyright Tom Phillips for SPP

This weekend marks the first legs of the UEFA Women’s Champions League semifinals. With a repeat of last season’s tie between Barcelona and Chelsea taking place in Spain and an all-French clash to look forward to as Lyon host Paris Saint-Germain, these are the biggest talking points dominating the buildup to Saturday’s matches.

The managers steal the headlines

Managerial flux is a major narrative affecting three of the four biggest clubs in Europe, as we approach the business end of the UWCL.

Chelsea’s Emma Hayes is on her high-profile farewell tour. This Champions League marks one of just two chances she has left to lift another trophy with her club of 12 years before heading across the pond to become U.S. women’s nationl team coach this summer.

There has been plenty said in the last few weeks about Hayes’ legacy at Chelsea, including an incredible 15 trophies and the use of her voice to elevate the women’s game in the U.K. But she has made no secret that winning a Champions League with Chelsea is her ultimate dream, and it would further cement her place in women’s football lore.

Down in Catalonia, meanwhile, another end draws near. This is Jonatan Giraldez’s last campaign as Barcelona’s head coach, as he is due to leave for the NWSL’s Washington Spirit at the end of the season. His reigning champion Barcelona team remains unbeaten this season in the Spanish top division, and it is looking to deny Chelsea a shot at the European title again, after ejecting Hayes’ side from last year’s semifinals and obliterating it in the 2021 final.

Barcelona head coach Jonatan Giraldez talking on the sideline
Barcelona head coach Jonatan Giraldez during the Primera Iberdrola match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Johan Cruyff Stadium in Sant Joan Despi, Barcelona, Spain. (Photo credit: Rafa Huerta | SPP)

Meanwhile, at Olympique Lyonnais, there is potential managerial unrest as the Daily Telegraph has reported that Sonia Bompastor is due to leave the French champions and replace Hayes in West London at Chelsea this summer. It would be a savvy appointment, as Chelsea has long been eyeing European success, and Bompastor has proved herself on that front — she remains the only female coach to win the UWCL in the last 15 years.

All three sides will need to block out the noise surrounding their coaches to get the results they need in the first legs of these semifinals.

Not just Hayes’ last shot

Hayes’ departure this summer could mark uncertainty among the squad she built too. Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby, Maren Mjelde and Ann Katrin Berger are among the players out of contract this summer. Those are senior figures in this Chelsea team, and an exodus could well follow now that the club’s leading figure is gone.

A rebuild may well be on the cards for Chelsea, and so this Champions League campaign could be the last time some of Hayes’s core group of players – who she carefully selected and brought into the club over the past decade – target that elusive European title.

It is also Chelsea’s only chance outside of the league to pick up silverware this season. Two domestic cup losses in the last month have raised question marks about this decorated team’s ability to rise to the occasion yet again.

There has been no shortage of pressure and attention on them. The controversy around Hayes pushing Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall at the League Cup final in late March has only just started to dissipate, and Hayes has been under more scrutiny than perhaps she has ever experienced in her career. Then star player Lauren James has received some criticism too, over appearing to place Manchester United’s Millie Turner in a headlock during Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final loss last weekend.

On Wednesday Hayes tried to reset. She made seven changes to her starting XI – including dropping James – in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa in the Women’s Super League. She said pre-match, “I want to see more consistency from the players in terms of showing up,” and there will be no better opportunity to do so than in Barcelona on Saturday afternoon.

The win over Villa nudged Chelsea marginally ahead of Manchester City in the WSL race on goal difference, and a similarly solid performance in Barcelona will only help to bring further equilibrium to this side, after an uncharacteristically turbulent period.

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Can PSG silence their Lyon demons? 

Lyon and PSG have history. This meeting in the semi-finals will be their 11th in the competition, which is a record. The problem for PSG is that eight-time champions Lyon have won four of their last five encounters.

There’s more. PSG have played Lyon at this stage of the competition three times, and they have lost each time. Just as ominously, Lyon have not lost at the semi-final stage since 2009. PSG have only won at Lyon twice in the last 10 years in this competition. They also were beaten by Lyon in their only Champions League final appearance back in 2017.

Those memories will be hard to shake for the Paris side.

But there are some good moments to draw from. They did knock Lyon out in 2021 at the quarterfinal stage. More recently, they will also be buoyed by their 1-1 league draw at Lyon in February, when they were cruelly denied the win by a stoppage-time own goal. 

And while Lyon’s dominance has been on display yet again domestically, as they have cruised through the regular season and secured first place with two games still left to play, a new format for this season will give PSG a chance to win the championship in the playoffs.

Breaking their Champions League hoodoo against Lyon, beginning in the first leg this Saturday, will remain the sweetest kind of victory for PSG.

Lyon, like Barcelona and Chelsea, go into this weekend unbeaten in the competition and also have the top scorer in former PSG player Kadidiatou Diani (seven goals). But PSG have grown into this campaign, and their clinical 5-1 aggregate win against Hacken in the quarter-finals was evidence of that.

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