Analyzing the Favorites to win the UWCL
The 2019-20 UEFA Women’s Champions League is finally making its return after almost nine months of no European matches. The final eight teams will be picking up where they left off in November, each with five months of rest, plenty of new transfers, and a drive to win the biggest competition in Europe. Due to the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, the competition needed to be completely reformatted, postponed and moved to a different location. UEFA also put in a set of player registration rules that have a major impact on how teams will line up. These changes will certainly make for an unpredictable and exciting tournament.
After five long months of waiting for European football, it’s finally time we take an in-depth look at each of the remaining team’s chances to win it all.
Olympique Lyonnais Féminin: [9/10]
The perennial UWCL winners and the current European Champions Olympique Lyonnais boast the best overall squad among the other title contenders. The club has big experience in this tournament, solid defense, and strength in attack. Lyon has almost everything to their advantage, so it only makes sense that they’re considered as the main candidate to win the UWCL for the fifth time in a row. This summer has been another huge one for Lyon, who have seen multiple big-name transfers in the form of Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, Ellie Carpenter, Lola Gallardo, and Sakina Karchaoui. Additionally, they’ve had contract extensions from two of their most crucial players in Dzsenifer Marozsán and Sarah Bouhaddi, who were heavily rumored to be on their way out to Utah this summer.
If there were any doubts about their success, they’d come from injuries and drops in form. The loss of Mbock and Hegerberg- two of their most crucial players- will probably be their downfall if it comes. In Mbock’s absence, the club has chosen to rely on Canadian defender Kadeisha Buchanan who can be shaky at times. Lyon's forward line has also looked a little weak since the season's top scorer Ada Hegerberg tore her ACL halfway through the season.
Lyon has one of the more difficult roads to the trophy, having to face match-ready Bayern and then one of PSG or Arsenal in the semifinals. The quarter-final game between Lyon and Bayern is going to be very interesting. Aside from being fully match-fit, Bayern has strengthened their squad this summer with some of the best young talents of German women's football. Assuming Lyon move along to the semifinal, they’ll have to face one of Arsenal or PSG, two sides that surely feel unsatisfied after their below-par league and cup seasons. They will do everything they can to make Lyon's path to the final more difficult (or even end it completely.)
Even considering their injury woes and a difficult path to the title, Lyon doesn't have much to worry about. The team dominated the French league like usual despite Ada's absence, had a successful preseason in Poland, and even though they didn’t play particularly well in their final two Coupe de France matches, they still left with a title. At the end of the day, Lyon are Lyon, so chances are good that they'll get the last laugh.
VfL Wolfsburg: [9/10]
VfL Wolfsburg will definitely be one of the teams to beat for the rest of the tournament. Their squad boasts some of the best talents in the world in their midfield and attack. Their attack, specifically, consists of players like Ewa Pajor, Alexandra Popp, Fridolina Rolfö, and one of the greatest strikers alive, Pernille Harder. Harder in particular looks hungrier than she ever has, having her best season to date with a Europe-high 27 league goals.
On the contrary, Wolfsburg's defense is by far their weakest point. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have made many defensive improvements in this transfer window, evident by their three goals allowed against SGS Essen in the DFB Pokal final. The absence of Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir for this team was visible during the match with the absence of the player in the middle of the pitch.
Despite the loss of Sara Björk and her invaluable impact on Wolfburg's midfield, the club have added Lena Oberdorf to their ranks, one of the best young talents in Germany. In addition, they have signed experienced goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek from PSG, defender Kathrin Hendrich from Bayern and forward Pauline Bremer from Manchester City, who had a great season (10 goals in 12 games).
Of all the other clubs, Wolfsburg have the easiest overall path to the final. After the match against Glasgow City that they're almost certain to win, they are going to face one of the two Spanish sides remaining in the competition- Barcelona or Atlético Madrid. Either opponent will be a major challenge- Atléti has seriously bolstered their squad this summer and are hoping to shock Europe after going trophyless for the first season in years. Barcelona are one of the only remaining unbeaten sides in Europe this season with by far the deadliest overall attack, and they are out for revenge after the 4-1 thrashing they took in last year's final.
With this being one of Harder's final years at the club, her and her teammates are probably the most motivated, competitive side remaining in the tournament. If they showed anything in the DFB Pokal final, it's that they are determined to pull out a win no matter how difficult it gets. Wolfsburg will be sure to give it their all despite their setbacks and challenges.
FC Barcelona Femení: [8/10]
FC Barcelona Femení is another one of the serious contenders remaining in this competition. After their 4-1 loss in last year's final, their team has undergone some radical changes in personnel, tactics, and mentality. The signing of Caroline Graham-Hansen from Wolfsburg and the return of both Jenni Hermoso and Andrea Falcón from Atlético Madrid have played a major role in the team’s success this year. They’ve won the Supercopa Femenina with a final score of 10-1, collected their fifth league title with 9 points clear, made it to the semifinal of the still-in-progress Copa de la Reina and have been unbeaten so far in every competition this season.
Similarly to Wolfsburg, Barcelona’s biggest weakness is their defense. The 4 goals conceded against Lyon last year was no fluke, they simply were not ready to handle the relentless, unforgiving nature of a world-class forward line like Lyon’s. Since that match, Barcelona’s starting defense has somewhat improved, but there have still been points where they’ve been tested, such as their narrow 3-2 win against Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa Femenina semifinal. Like a typical Barcelona team, they like to keep possession, which unfortunately makes them more susceptible to counter-attacks. Barcelona are also the only team remaining in the Champion’s League that have made no senior-team signings this summer in any area, let alone in defense. Instead, the club has opted to promote some very talented players from their B team, two of which are defenders that can step up if needed.
Their road to the final has been one of the more difficult ones after having to play Juventus in the Round of 32. Now they face bitter rivals Atléti in the quarter-finals. Regardless of the fact that four of Atléti’s players will be out due to COVID diagnoses, they are certainly aching to have the last laugh after Blaugrana side beat them two trophies so far this season. If they make it past Atléti then they’re likely to face Wolfsburg, which could be one of the best matches of the season due to their similar level of ability and comparable strengths and weaknesses.
With home-field advantage, FCB Femení are looking for another shot at being the first Spanish team to lift the Champions League trophy, and they look much more prepared than last year to do so. Their attack has been outstanding this entire season, and their forwards CGH, Lieke Martens, Jenni Hermoso and especially Asisat Oshoala all hit a stride before the COVID break, and don’t seem to have lost that groove as evident by their successful preseason. Other outfield players in Mapi León, Alexia Putellas, Patri Guijarro, and Marta Torrejón have all had some career-defining seasons, and the team as a whole seems more than motivated to reach another UWCL final- hopefully winning it all this time around.
PSG Féminine: [6/10]
PSG Féminine are an underrated but quality team that is often left out of the conversation of UWCL powerhouses. It’s easy to forget that they’ve featured in the later stages of almost every UWCL campaign in the past five years, including reaching two finals. Their dominance is often overshadowed by their superior French rivals Lyon, who have consistently won in every international and domestic competition for the better part of a decade.
Perhaps one of their most overlooked qualities is their highly-effective front three comprised of Marie-Antoinette Katoto, Nadia Nadim, and Kadidiatou Diani. Recently-signed Swiss veteran Ramona Bachmann and young Canadian star Jordyn Huitema add to the depth they already have going forward.
Their biggest worry would be that both their midfield and defense don't look quite as solid overall. PSG has experienced and creative players like Sara Däbritz, young talented midfielders like Grace Geyoro, and reliable veteran players at the back like Irene Paredes and Christiane Endler- but the individual talent isn’t everything. It’s the lack of depth and limited team cohesiveness that’s the most concerning.
Success in the quarter-finals against Arsenal will depend on PSG's offensive trio clicking, something they struggled to do in the final stages of the Coupe de France. Their defense will also be tested because Arsenal is a team that likes to attack and has clinical offensive players like van de Donk and Miedema. If PSG wins against the North London team, they will most likely face Lyon in the semi-finals, making PSG's chances rather slim considering the years of difficult losses that PSG have against Lyon. If they showed anything in the 2018 Coupe de France though, it’s that a team like PSG with tons of offensive ability and a chip on their shoulder should never be counted out.
Arsenal WFC: [6/10]
Before the COVID break, Arsenal WFC were looking in very poor shape. They had just left off from the domestic season with a tough loss in the Conti Cup final against London rivals Chelsea, had such a thin squad that their bench was filled with reserves, and had multiple staring players like Miedema, Van de Donk, Roord, Wälti and Mead out with injuries. The rules put in place by UEFA regarding UWCL player eligibility had Arsenal’s chances of getting past the quarterfinals looking even bleaker.
After some adjustments to said rules, things are looking up for the Gunners. Arsenal looks like a better team and their chances of making it to the final have improved drastically with five months of rest, healing and some new signings in Steph Catley, Malin Gut, Lydia Williams, and Noëlle Maritz.
With elite players like Miedema, van de Donk, Williamson and Catley at their disposal, they could create problems for both PSG and Lyon. PSG statistically has the most productive attack in Europe and was very solid defensively in the recent Coupe de France final, meaning that matchup will certainly not be easy. If they win, they will most likely face Lyon in the semi-finals- a tough match, but as long as the ball is in play, everything is possible. Arsenal’s chances aren’t the best, but they’re a force that should not be underestimated.
Bayern Munich Frauen: [4/10]
Out of all the teams in the knockout stages, the team that has to go through the most difficult path is Bayern Munich Frauen. Unfortunately for them, their first match back from their runner-up Bundesliga campaign will be facing the mighty Olympique Lyon.
Bayern has shown many times during the 19/20 Frauen Bundesliga season that they can play football very effectively and with a good organization in the defense. If they were drawn almost any other team, their chances would've been much better, especially given their excellent moves in this summer’s transfer window. Bayern have signed two young German football talents- Lea Schüller from SGS Essen and Klara Bühl from SC Freiburg. They’ve also signed a few experienced players- Sarah Zadrazil from Turbine Potsdam, Marina Hegering from SGS Essen, and Hanna Glas from PSG.
Bayern has a herculean task ahead of them to win the UWCL trophy. Magull and co. need a rock-solid game plan, luck, and a lot of faith if they want a chance at getting past the quarterfinals. If they somehow do that, it would prove to be anybody’s game.
Atlético de Madrid Femenino*: [3/10]
Chances for winning the UWCL looked low but still do-able for Spanish side Atlético Madrid. They’re a strong team and have been the most dominant side in Spain’s domestic competitions for years, but this season they slipped behind a reborn Barcelona team and lost out on every available domestic trophy. Luckily for them this summer was a big one, as they lost Olga García, both of their right-backs, (Caro Aria and Kenti Robles) and both of their keepers (Sari van Veenendaal and Lola Gallardo,) but picked up on Hedvig Lindahl, PPM, Merel van Dongen, Turid Knaak and Emelyne Laurent, amongst a few others. They’ve played just one preseason match and had to abandon others due to potential COVID exposure, so it’s difficult to predict how this new team will shape up to any of the bigger teams.
Taking all this into account, the newest “Comunicado Oficial” from the club is that the team has cancelled all training sessions just ten days before the match due to five positive COVID cases, meaning UEFA may have to step in to determine the outcome of their quarterfinal match against Barcelona. Per UEFA’s COVID-19 rules, Atléti must be able to field 13 healthy players to play a match. If there is no healthy keeper, the match will be rescheduled, and a reschedule isn’t possible, they’ll be forced to forfeit the quarterfinal match 3-0. A lot of this is up in the air, but one thing is for sure- UEFA will likely do everything they can to avoid a reschedule. Assuming that at least some of those infected are starters, Atléti will either have to field an incomplete starting 11 and a limited bench or forfeit the match completely. The outlook wasn’t looking promising for the team to begin with, but these developments have brought their chances down even lower.
Glasgow City FC: 1/10
Glasgow City's chances of beating Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals aren’t fully zero, but they are minimal, to say the least. Preseason hasn’t been boding well for them after they took a 4-0 beating from Manchester United Women. Nevertheless, the club deserves a lot of respect for making it all the way to the quarter-finals. They’re a team that consists mostly of players little known to the general public, but a team that has dominated the league in Scotland for several years. Glasgow City will surely fight and won't give up easily, and this match will give them a necessary experience for growth and improvement. It’ll also be a good test for Wolfsburg and their other opponents to see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
Will Glasgow City focus on defense and counter attacks or will they try to surprise the German hegemon with something unexpected? This match seems to be only a formality, but its course can have a significant impact on the further results in the tournament and the way of each team to the final.
Even though the outcomes seem easy to predict on paper, nothing is conclusive. This tournament has undergone a lot of major changes since the restart and teams are in a very unfamiliar position after four or five months of no playing or training. Hopefully, everything will continue to go as planned in the three remaining knockout stages. We'll know for sure if our predictions are right once one of these teams finally lifts the 2020 Champions League trophy after an unexpectedly long campaign.