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Barcelona’s head-to-head against Lyon remains their Achilles’ heel ahead of a blockbuster Champions League final

Amandine Henry (6 Olympique Lyonnais) celebrates her goal with her teammates. Her hands are in the air with her pointer fingers raised.
Photo Copyright Daniela Porcelli for SPP

“You can’t compare eight Champions Leagues with two,” Olympique Lyonnais goalkeeper Christiane Endler told Spanish media earlier this week. “With all respect, it’s still very ambitious on Barcelona’s part to compare results. I’ve only won one, but it’s not the same as what Lyon has accomplished in its history.”

Endler has a point. But ahead of the Champions League final on Saturday in Bilbao – where we will see the two titans of European women’s football clash – one feels inclined to do just that: compare them. In the build-up to a game of this magnitude, that is inevitable.

In the end, this match will be decided on the pitch, as it always is. A look at the raw numbers or the history can only provide an insight, but Endler’s comments do oversimplify this tie.

Yes, Lyon have won the Champions League eight times. Barcelona have won it twice. Lyon have contested 11 finals, Barcelona five. Between 2016 and 2020, Lyon won a remarkable five consecutive Champions League titles. With the way women’s football has grown in recent years and investment increased, we are unlikely to see that level of dominance ever replicated.

Recency bias plays a part in the way Barcelona have become the new golden team of women’s football, but the recent results do not lie either. Over the past five seasons, things have evened out between the Catalan side and Lyon: two UWCL titles for Barcelona, three for Lyon. Barcelona have reached five of the last six finals, Lyon four.

One thing that still eludes this Barcelona team though? A win over Lyon. That is perhaps the most crucial detail of all those being pored over ahead of Saturday’s final. They have tried four times – twice in the UWCL final – and each time Barcelona have been outdone by the French side. That is a heavy record to carry, deep scars to try to heal.

If Barcelona were to win this weekend, successfully defending their European title, this feels like the moment where they may officially usurp Lyon’s place at the top of continental football hierarchy. They may sit top in the UEFA rankings already but, for all their achievements and gains made in the last few years, Barcelona still need to get a win over Lyon in order to truly overtake them.

Whether they can move past that mental block, and show the progress they have made since their 3-1 loss in the 2022 final remains to be seen. Barcelona will likely enjoy more support at San Mames Stadium, just a few hours drive from their home ground. But you cannot call yourself the best, until you have beaten the best, and this will be the ultimate test of Barcelona’s mettle.

There is no denying that Barcelona has been the breakout team of the 2020s. Their rise has shaken up the European order, after years of almost unyielding supremacy from Lyon. Where Lyon had long been the go-to destination for the best footballers in the world, the sunny Catalan climes and huge investment in Barcelona’s women’s team started attracting international names like Keira Walsh, Caroline Graham Hansen, Lucy Bronze. Their homegrown talent like Aitana Bonmati and Alexia Putellas rose to the very top of the game too, adding Ballon d’Or winner to their resumés.

But that is not to say that Lyon have wilted in the meantime. As Endler alluded to, her club’s history precedes it and some players who formed an integral part of that remain in the squad. Ada Hegerberg is one such player. She holds the record for all-time goals scored in the competition and her decade at Lyon, alongside other stalwarts like Dzsenifer Marozsán, Wendie Renard and Eugenie le Sommer, created a core spine to this squad, with which few teams can compete. Hegerberg’s return from injury, in time for this final, will be another boost to Lyon’s confidence. Then there is the threat of Kadidiatou Diani – poached from their bitter rivals Paris Saint Germain – who is the UWCL top scorer this season, with eight goals to her name. 

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Experience may be on Lyon’s side, but Barcelona’s squad are full of proven winners too – not only domestically or in the European game, but on the world stage. No less than seven of their squad were World Cup winners with Spain last summer. Salma Paralluelo is only 20, but with Barcelona and Spain has already won every title under the sun.

As for form, there is very little to separate these teams. Lyon have a 87% win rate across all competitions this season. Barcelona better them slightly at 93, but have six more matches in their legs at this late stage in what has been a long campaign. Both conquered their respective domestic leagues again this season, and Barcelona completed a domestic treble last weekend. But a quadruple would be a new frontier for them, and doing it by overcoming Lyon would make it the sweetest ever victory.

There is added pressure on both teams to deliver, as this match will mark the end of their respective coaching eras. Jonatan Giraldez exits Barcelona at the end of the season, to take up his role with the Washington Spirit in the NWSL, while Sonia Bompastor is expected to move to Chelsea, replacing Emma Hayes.

When managers leave, shifts in style happen, and personnel adjustments are often made. Lyon and Barcelona have the foundations and the funds to continue excelling at the top level regardless of who is in charge, but these two squads in their current guises have their last shot at European glory now.

Saturday will mark the latest climax of what has become the top rivalry in women’s football. Two dream teams meeting in the final to win the greatest prize in club football.

Endler is right, Lyon have many more European titles than Barcelona. But no one will care about history on Saturday, the most important trophy to win is always the last one.

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