For the most part, FC Barcelona Femení continued their season-long dominance in the month of March. Their tough schedule included eight total matches, comprised of four UWCL matches and 5 (technically 6) away games. Despite such an exhausting month, Barcelona continued to impose themselves in both Spain and Europe. At the end of it all, the team won all their matches with a minimum 3-goal margin except one, a 2-1 loss away to second-place WSL team Manchester City.
In a month with so many crucial matches against quality attacking teams, the entire squad needed to be putting in maximum effort on all areas of the pitch for thirty straight days. That's why one of the most outstanding stats from the past month is that Barcelona only conceded 2 goals in 8 games. Goalkeeper Sandra Paños is the player at the center of that statistic.
With Cata Coll absent until late in the month due to a long-term Achilles injury, Paños was the only keeper available in the squad with either UWCL or Primera División playing experience. When tasked with such a big responsibility, the Spanish stopper came up huge and brought out some unbelievable saves that kept the team's mentality intact in crucial moments.
In Paños's first three matches of the season against Fortuna Hjørring, Santa Teresa, and Valencia, she conceded zero goals and hardly had any shots against her. She remained as a spectator in most games, and her first time being challenged was when Barcelona played Rayo Vallecano away.
Primera Iberdrola - Rayo Vallecano (Away) (20/3/2021): 0-4
Barça traveled to Madrid to face Rayo Vallecano, who were beaten by relegation fighting Deportivo in the previous matchday. Sandra Paños was called into action twice during the game. In the 29th minute, she made a great block against a fierce shot from Paula Fernández. This is the first time the shot stopper was legitimately tested in weeks, and she came up big to keep Barcelona's near-perfect goal difference intact.
She was again called into action in the 66th minute when she closed space on the near post, causing an advancing Iris to shoot into the side netting, ensuring Barça kept their clean sheet intact. Rayo was another game where Paños wasn't tested any more than once or twice per 90 minutes.
UEFA Women’s Champions League: Quarterfinals First leg - Manchester City (Neutral ground) [24/3/2021] : 3-0
Saves: 5, including a penalty save
So far this season, Barcelona was never tested against an experienced team with both physicality and pace. That's why Barça's biggest match of the season so far was against Manchester City, a side that was on a winning streak of 11 games with 32 goals scored. Coming into the tie, FC Barcelona Femení had never beaten an English side in a competitive match. Additionally, in their entire European competition history, Manchester City were kept scoreless in just 3 matches from 20 games before the game against Barça.
This first match of the tie was played outside the Estadi Johan Cruyff, at a neutral away venue in Italy due to COVID-19 restrictions for English Champions League teams. Barcelona may have been the better team on paper, but the circumstances of the match and Barcelona's history against English teams in the UWCL were not in their favor. The Barça defense was against the trident of Ellen White, Chloe Kelly, and Lauren Hemp, the latter two being in fantastic form in the English League heading into this tie. Given Barcelona's backline being shaky at times against attacking teams, Sandra Paños was tasked with managing them against a forward line of unfamiliar quality. In this match, she proved why she is so important to the team with what was by far her best performance of the season.
Against the English side, it was very important to keep a clean sheet, so as to prevent them from getting any valuable away goals or any kind of mental advantage. In the first 20 minutes, Sandra Paños was called into action a few times, making routine saves. Most of the game for the first half was a back-and-forth of pressing from both teams, but after conceding a goal in the 35th minute to Oshoala, City seemed like they weren't in the fight anymore.
However, the most important moment of the tie came in the 55th minute when Hemp was tripped inside the box by Mapi León, awarding a penalty to City. Barcelona were up 2 goals by that point, but a City goal would have completely changed the direction of the tie. Up until this point, they looked completely demoralized, but this penalty would have given them a crucial chance to record an away goal and put them back mentally in the match.
Paños had other ideas. She dove to her right to make a big save against a powerful penalty attempt from Chloe Kelly. The save entirely tilted the tie towards the Blaugrana as they controlled the remaining 30 minutes of the match with ease.
Paños pulled out a couple more saves towards the end of the game against a deflected shot of Ellen White and an acrobatic effort from the substitute Georgia Stanway. Barcelona went marching on to the second leg with a 3-0 goal lead at the end of the 90 minutes.
Throughout the game, Paños made wise choices and read the game perfectly. At every turn, she knew where to position herself, when to retain possession, and did those things accompanied by her near-perfect distribution. Thanks to Paños, Barca managed to do something that no other team has done since 2014- beating Manchester City by 3 or more goals in a tie. In addition, Barcelona's goal margin handed City their heaviest defeat in a single leg of the European competition.
Primera Iberdrola - Sevilla (Away) (27/3/2021): 0-4
Barcelona traveled to Sevilla in their next game to play in the Jesus Navas stadium against a Sevilla side on a great run of form- unbeaten in their last 7 games. Barca’s defense was put up against an energetic attacking trident composed of Barcelona loanee Clàudia Pina, Toni Payne, and Zenatha Coleman. From the start, the game looked complicated as Barcelona were not able to score in the first half of a match for the first time this season.
In fact, Sevilla seemed to be on the front foot for some of the first half. Clàudia in particular stepped up big against her home club, creating most of Sevilla's chances and starting most of their attacks. One of these plays was a dissecting long pass from deep in Barcelona's half of the pitch. She found Toni Payne from distance with the through ball, which put her one-on-one with Sandra Paños. Sandra Paños came off her line and made a huge save, thwarting Payne’s attempt on goal.
Paños's big save prevented Barcelona from conceding first at an away venue for the first time this season. Again, Sandra Panos proved crucial as Barca came out blazing in the second half, scoring 4 goals to end the match with yet another clean sheet.
UEFA Women’s Champions League : Quarter finals Second leg - Manchester City(Away) [31/3/2021] : 2-1
With a solid advantage, Barcelona traveled to Manchester to face City in the second leg of the UWCL quarter-finals. City’s coach Gareth Taylor stated that it wouldn't be too big of a challenge to come back against Barcelona in his post-match interview after the first leg. Given how City burst onto the scene when the game started, City's dreams nearly became a reality. Barça were clearly nervous about the prospect of a comeback. They gave the ball away to City in dangerous areas and it was quite evident that an early goal was beaconing for the home side. City did exactly that thanks to a towering assist from Sam Mewis to Janine Beckie to cut short Barcelona's aggregate lead.
Barça were playing dangerously and without confidence, and it looked like there would be a collapse similar to that of the men’s team, reminiscent of Anfield. But this time, Sandra Paños stood big and handled the pressure with both quality handling and shot-stopping throughout the first 25 minutes. A finger-tip save from a Janine Beckie shot ensured that Barca maintained the 2 goal aggregate lead over the first 45 minutes, allowing for Barça to regain their composure and control for the second half.
In the 55th minute, Paños was nearly 1-on-1 with Janine Beckie after a misplaced pass from a Barcelona player fell to her feet. Paños came off her line and timed her run towards Beckie perfectly, snatching the ball away from the feet of the Canadian and keeping the score at 1-0.
An Oshoala goal not soon after that save killed any of City's hopes of a comeback. Despite conceding a second goal from a Samantha Mewis penalty, Paños put forth a performance that allowed her backline to stay confident and composed. City's constant attacking and pressure didn't end up affecting Barcelona like it did in the first half. At the end of the 90 minutes, Barcelona made it through to their fourth Champions League semi-final in 5 years.
Sandra Paños showed her confidence as the month progressed, coping well with the pressure of a tough UWCL draw. Her performances in March ensured that Barca kept 7 clean sheets in 8 games spanning over 30 days.
Above all else this month, Paños demonstrated that one of her greatest attributes is her unrelenting concentration. Barcelona's attacking dominance in games meant that she was uninvolved for long periods of time, but whenever she is needed, she stays sharp and shows up in big moments. Whether she faces 0 shots or 30, Paños has a determination to protect the clean sheet time after time, with confidence. Her form during March was as impressive as ever, rightfully earning a spot as our player of the month.