The past decade of the UEFA Women’s Champions League has largely been a story of Olympique Lyonnais’ dominance — with eight titles since 2010-11 — but a tasty subplot has been building in the background. While Lyon are still one of Europe’s best teams, the evolution of several teams is finally coming to the fore in the semifinals, with four diverse teams coming together over the next week in hopes of booking a spot in Eindhoven on June 3.
– Chelsea vs. Barcelona (first leg April 22, second leg April 27)
– Wolfsburg vs. Arsenal (first leg April 23, second leg April 28)
Rather than a coronation, the Champions League feels more like a changing of the guard.
The tide is shifting towards a more open competition…
Save for a lone appearance by Tyreso FF in the 2013-14 final, Champions League audiences were well used to France and Germany’s might by the time Chelsea made their first appearance at the start of the 2015-16 season. Even before the tournament was rebranded in 2009-10, doing away with the old UEFA Women’s Cup moniker and cutting the final down to a one-legged event the following season, only Arsenal (2006-07) and Umea (2002-03 and 2003-04) had ever prevented a German or French team from winning the coveted silverware.
Yet some of the older names from the competition were fading; two-time champions Umea were fast slipping down the Swedish ranks, and independent Frauen-Bundesliga sides like FFC Frankfurt (now Eintracht) and Turbine Potsdam were struggling to keep step with VfL Wolfsburg and an emerging Bayern Munich side. By the time Chelsea took to the pitch for their first European outing, and doing it just four days after winning the WSL title for the first time, the golden girls of English football were tipped to be the team to upset the dominance of Lyon and Wolfsburg.
In truth, Chelsea were far too green and were knocked out of the competition in three straight seasons by Wolfsburg, before being narrowly dispatched by Lyon in the semi-finals in 2019. Away from the competition, Chelsea kept growing and evolving off of the pitch, with manager Emma Hayes using every opportunity to strengthen her squad and make her team better.
Away from Europe for the 2019-20 season following a sub-par domestic campaign that left them outside of the qualification places, the Blues came back with gusto, revitalised and ready to work every advantage to finally reach a Champions League final. It might not have been a picture-perfect run to the 2021 final for Chelsea, but the showpiece itself, played behind closed doors in Gothenburg, Sweden during the coronavirus pandemic, was the first final with no German or French participants since Arsenal’s win over Umea in 2007.
However, Hayes’ side could not get across the line, as Barcelona raced to a 4-0 lead inside 36 minutes and cantered to victory from there. If this experience is to be different, the Blues will have to show they are learning from past failures at this level.
… as several established powers struggle to reinvent themselves
With the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona reaching the Champions League finals, it seemed that the status quo was finally shifting and the darlings of Europe, Lyon, were falling down the pecking order. It was an assumption the perennial winners found particularly insulting last season when they again sparred with Barcelona in the final. Having raced to a 4-0 lead inside 30 minutes to beat Barca the first time around in 2019, they favoured pragmatism to disrupt the Catalans in the 2022 final, scoring three times in 33 minutes en route to a comfortable 3-1 win.
The stylistic shift paid dividends as the French powerhouse won a record eighth European crown, but the 2022-23 season has raised some questions around the reigning champions. Undergoing a protracted rebirth under manager Sonia Bompastor, the once-bulldozing team is trying to play with more pragmatism on the pitch. Lyon’s next iteration coincides with a crowded field: as more teams are capable of contending, more energy and nous is required from the established elite.
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From Barcelona to up-and-comers like Roma and Benfica — as well as other sides who’ve undergone a rebirth/change of management such as Arsenal and Wolfsburg — there is no question that the route to the final is far more fraught with danger than before. It’s something Lyon were repeatedly forced to confront this season. From a hammering by the Gunners at the Parc OL at the start of the group stage, to a last-gasp loss against Chelsea in the last eight, Lyon’s injury crisis and inability to kill games off led to their early exit for the European giants.
Indeed, with the quarterfinal exits of both Lyon and a deeply inconsistent Paris Saint-Germain, this season marks the first since 2013-14 that no French side has reached the final four.
Just 24 hours before Chelsea took the pitch against Lyon, Arsenal got off to a breathless start against Bayern Munich at the Emirates. Playing a near-perfect first 45 minutes, Arsenal — even with injuries to key players like Vivianne Miedema — preached from the gospel of Jonas Eidevall’s “Eideball,” cementing their rebirth under the Swedish manager who took over ahead of last season. Having shifted from a possession and pass-heavy style to a high intensity pressing one, they were able to handle an off-colour Munich team.
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Once again, the last standing representative from the Frauen-Bundesliga, Wolfsburg are all that stands between Arsenal and their first European final for 16 years though the German champions are a formidable foe. With five final appearances under their belts, will be eyeing a sixth this season, as well as their first European crown since 2014. They’re another in a long list of teams that have had to adapt; an increased professionalisation across Europe means that top teams need to be the best-coached, as it’s no longer enough to have all the best players and inevitably steamroll the opposition.
Heading into the first legs of the semifinals this weekend, it could be injuries that dictate how the matches play out as both English sides are heavily hampered with the absence of key personnel — although Wolfsburg are likely to be without starters Alex Popp, Marina Hegering and Lena Lattwein – but there remains an inevitability about Barcelona and Wolfsburg wins.
The route to the final is clear for Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea and Wolfsburg, but there are some twists and turns left in this tale yet.