Thursday, February 29, 2024

What to look out for in Women’s Champions League

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Lyon won the Women’s Champions League for an eighth time last season with a 3-1 win over Barcelona in the final

Chelsea sailed through the group stages undefeated. Arsenal proved eight-time winners Lyon can be beaten. But can an English side finally make a breakthrough and win the Women’s Champions League for the first time since 2007?

The group stages have come and gone and it’s time for the knockout rounds with the first legs of the quarter-finals kicking off this week.

Chelsea travel to reigning champions Lyon, Arsenal face Bayern Munich, Roma welcome Barcelona and Paris St-Germain host Wolfsburg.

So what challenges do the two Women’s Super League sides face? BBC Sport takes a look at who’s involved and what to watch out for.

Chelsea

Emma Hayes’ side have been England’s most successful team in recent years, with the Blues on course for a fourth consecutive WSL title this season.

They have been the only English team to reach a Champions League final since Arsenal’s success in 2007, but a heavy 4-0 defeat saw Barcelona lift the trophy in 2021.

Having failed to get out of the group stage last year, Chelsea topped their 2022-23 group with five wins, scoring 19 goals and only dropping points in a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid.

The Blues are in superb form in the WSL, having gone unbeaten since a surprise defeat by Liverpool in their opening game in September.

They suffered just their second loss of the season earlier this month when they missed out on the Continental League Cup, with Arsenal winning 3-1 in the final.

Despite sitting at the top of the French league, Chelsea’s quarter-final opponents Lyon had a rocky journey through the group stages this year, losing heavily to Arsenal before drawing both of their games against Juventus.

Arsenal

They may be the only English team to have won the Women’s Champions League – doing so in 2007 – but Arsenal haven’t reached the semi-finals in 10 years and they’ve fallen at the quarter-finals in their last three campaigns.

Can they change the tide this time around?

It won’t be easy with Bayern Munich standing in their way. The German side have never won the competition but they do have recent European semi-final experience, reaching the last four in 2020-21 – beaten by Chelsea 5-3.

A 5-1 win over eight-time Champions League winners Lyon was the highlight for Jonas Eidevall’s Arsenal, who topped Group C with four victories, while Bayern finished behind Barcelona on goal difference, having won all but one of their matches.

With a dip in form at the start of 2023, Arsenal have dropped outside of the Champions League spots to fourth in the WSL, but the Gunners’ confidence will have been boosted after lifting their first trophy in four years with their Continental Cup victory over Chelsea.

For Bayern Munich, the Champions League quarter-finals come at a crucial period in their league season. Their two ties against Arsenal are separated by what could be a title-deciding game against league-leaders Wolfsburg, who sit just two points above Alexander Straus’ side.

Big stadiums

Barcelona set a new record attendance for a women's club game last season with 91,648 fans watching their semi-final against Wolfsburg at the Nou Camp

Big games call for big stadiums and each of the quarter-final teams will play in their club’s larger ground which is usually used for the men’s teams. That’s eight iconic stadiums.

Champions League debutantes Roma will host Barcelona at Italy’s Stadio Olimpico before travelling to the Nou Camp for the second leg.

Barcelona attracted enormous crowds to the same stadium last season, drawing in more than 90,000 spectators for both their quarter-final against Real Madrid and semi-final against Wolfsburg.

Chelsea will play at Parc Olympique Lyonnais and Arsenal will travel to the Allianz Arena for their first-leg ties against Lyon and Bayern Munich, respectively.

In the return legs, both WSL teams will be welcoming their opponents to their club’s bigger stadium – Stamford Bridge and Emirates Stadium.

In January, a crowd of 46,811 – the second-biggest in WSL history – turned out at the Emirates to watch a 1-1 draw between Arsenal and Chelsea, who, at that point, were the top two teams in the league.

PSG will play Wolfsburg at the 48,583-capacity Parc des Princes in Paris before heading to Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena for the return fixture.

Main contenders

It’s difficult to look past Lyon for this year’s Champions League title, with the French side winning six of the last seven trophies.

Barcelona, who stole the spotlight from Lyon in 2021 and were the top-scoring club in this year’s group stages, are also seen as major contenders, having reached three finals in the last four years.

Leading the Spanish top division by 10 points, Barcelona are yet to drop points this season and they look set to claim the title for a fourth year in a row.

However, this season’s group stage proved that Lyon and Barcelona can have their bad days as Arsenal and Bayern Munich demonstrated they can beat Europe’s best.

Chelsea and Wolfsburg should not be overlooked either, as the only teams to reach the quarter-finals unbeaten.

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