Lieke Martens’ big game condondrum for Lluis Cortes
Beneath the backdrop of an empty Camp Nou, it was fitting that FC Barcelona Femení served up a five-star performance on their first-ever competitive visit to the stadium and extend their perfect start to the Primera Iberdrola season. An expertly guided header in first-half stoppage time from Catalan-born Alexia Putellas finally broke the deadlock, before Melanie Serrano and Ana-Maria Crnogorčević added their names to the scoresheet to cement a memorable night for Barcelona Femení after the break.
Either side of Serrano and Crnogorčević’s two second-half goals, Lieke Martens continued her blistering start to the campaign with yet another goal contribution from the bench. Although the game was settled long before Martens entered the fray, the winger nodded home Crnogorčević’s cross from the right to add a glimmering Dutch touch to proceedings and resurrect scenes reminiscent of the great Johan Cruyff throughout the 1970s.
Martens glanced finish enabled her to reach double digits for goals in 2020/21 and continued her finest start to a season in Blaugrana colors since her arrival in the summer of 2017.
Fresh from winning Player of the Tournament at the 2017 European Championships and her stock soaring to a meteoric level, Martens endured a strong beginning to life as a Barcelona Femení player and provided 22 goals and 15 assists in 52 league matches in her first two seasons. Nevertheless, the Dutch aces’ exploits were not enough to land Barcelona the big titles they were looking for and even a perfectly-weighted assist in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final of 2019 served only as a consolation in reply to Lyon’s early four-goal haul.
Despite Barcelona finally breaking Atlético de Madrid Femenino’s grip on the domestic title last season, Martens was frustratingly forced to watch from the sidelines during the first half of the year due to a foot injury sustained from the Dutch national team’s exploits in reaching the 2019 Women’s World Cup final. In Martens’ absence, Mariona Caldentey became a regular starter down the left-hand side and fully excelled in filling the spot vacated by the former UEFA Player of the Year winner. Additionally, the arrival of Caroline Graham Hansen on the opposite flank from Wolfsburg and the return of Jennifer Hermoso made Barcelona Femení a much more potent outfit, and their 6-1 demolition of the reigning champions in the early weeks of the season laid down a bold marker of what was to transpire.
The Catalan side was unrelenting in their quest for a first league title triumph since 2015 and had racked up a nine-point advantage over Atletico by the time the league was curtailed in May, owing to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst all that, Martens made her elongated return to action in December and expectedly took time to regain match sharpness and aspire to reach the immense level her teammates had elevated to throughout the previous few months. However, following the traditional Christmas break, Martens rebounded a rejuvenated figure and in January returned to the standard expected from a highly-regarded international player. An assist against CD Tacon away from home provided the springboard for a fruitful spell in February that witnessed the Bergen-born player register two goals and eight assists in only six matches. Crucially in that spell was her outstanding displays in the inaugural Supercopa de España Femenina, notching a goal and an assist in the comeback against Atletico, ahead of setting up two for teammates in the 10-1 thumping of Real Sociedad Femenino in the final.
Martens would end the league season with a modest tally of 1 goal and 5 assists in 12 appearances, but 2019/20 had unfinished business with the announcement the Women’s Champions League would finally seek completion in the form of a one-legged tournament format on Spanish soil. Despite a productive spell in front of goal in friendly matches ahead of the tournament, Barcelona Femení came up against a stubborn Atletico side, boasting a number of new additions to their lineup, and Martens was substituted in the 64th minute. Mariona’s crafting role in the sole goal of the game, scored by Kheira Hamraoui only 10 minutes from time, rewarded her with the start against Wolfsburg in place of Martens, but the Spanish side’s failure to convert a number of gilt-edged chances saw them agonizingly fall short on reaching a second consecutive final.
For Lluis Cortes’ squad, the heartbreak of missing out on the ultimate prize provided a bitter end to a fantastic season, particularly in the manner of the defeat. Wolfsburg, often referred to as one of the leading teams in the competition over the past few years, had not proven to be a match for the intensity and intricacy of Barcelona Femení’s play and vice-captain Alexia Putellas’ declarative “no hay distancia” (there's no distance) comment echoed that feeling of anguish amongst the players.
Bemusingly, despite the Spaniard’s shortcomings in front of goal, Martens was not introduced until the dying stages, at a point where the German champions were content to hold on to what they had critically gained at the other end and openings were at a premium. Martens had again reiterated her commitment to the Barca project the previous summer by reportedly rejecting the advances of many top European sides to pen a new long-term deal, yet the Dutch player’s world-class attributes had seemingly not been deemed appropriate to change the course of that particular game. That was one of a number of high-profile tactical decisions that the head coach would come in for scrutiny that night.
Fast-forward two months and Barcelona Femeni returned to competitive action in the league with a visit to the capital to take on Real Madrid Feminino, in Los Blancos’ debut outing. Similar to that ill-fated semi-final, Martens was again rooted to a place on the bench as Barcelona presented a star-studded support cast of Hermoso-Hansen-Mariona behind Nigerian goal machine Asisat Oshoala. Despite their devastating show of riches in attack, Barcelona Femení struggled for rhythm in the opening 45 minutes and consequently only took a slender one-goal lead into the break. On this occasion, Cortes was not to make the same mistake and he ushered Martens to his side shortly after the second half had got underway. Aitana Bonmatí was the player that was substituted and the Spanish coach elected to move Mariona into the centre of the pitch and use Martens in her natural left-sided role. Within 10 minutes of her introduction, Martens had directly influenced the action by grabbing a vital third goal for the away side, smartly converting Graham Hansen’s deflected cross from the right into the bottom corner on the half-turn.
Aside from her impact on the scoresheet, Martens implemented the width that Barca’s play had been severely lacking and speculating regret about what could have potentially unfolded months previous in Bilbao. Since that afternoon in Madrid, the 28-year-old has rediscovered the type of form that has seen her previously recognised as the best female footballer on the planet. Martens has maintained her role of continuing to create countless opportunities for her teammates, ranking third for chances created throughout the top five female leagues in the entire calendar year of 2020, while also earning a reputation for becoming lethal in front of goal. That has been reflected in the fact only central attackers Hermoso and Oshoala can better her tally of a goal every 77 minutes in 2020/21 and only the former, plus Graham Hansen, has better minutes to a goal or assist ratio.
Furthermore, Martens has also carried her spectacular form into the Women’s Champions League campaign by recording three goals in the 8-2 aggregate win over PSV Eindhoven to book their place in the Round of 16. That trio of strikes means no other Barcelona Femení player has scored more in Europe than the Dutch woman so far and already marks her best tally for her current club only two games into the new competition. By scoring at the Camp Nou it was also Martens' third goal as a substitute this season, showcasing her reliability in making a difference regardless of whether she is a starter.
Intriguingly, the other two occasions Martens would pounce from the bench was in the before-mentioned opening day victory against Real and then against fellow Madrid rivals, Atletico. Although every game could be regarded as pivotal in the race for silverware, it would be a fair assessment to suggest that Barca’s hardest tests have been those three matches listed. However, despite her scintillating start to the season and her evident contribution in all of those games, Martens has still been restricted to being utilized as an impact player in the ‘big’ games. Surely a player performing to an exceptional level and averaging over a goal contribution a game in all competitions - 10 goals, 4 assists in 12 games - is worthy of being given more opportunities to excel on the brightest stage of them all. It is a conundrum that has stemmed from the result of her substitution against Las Colchoneras in that narrow quarter-final win. Granted that the second-half switch led to the decisive goal that evening before her substitution Martens was one of a handful of Barca players that appeared lively and willing to disrupt Atletico’s deep defensive block.
Therefore, her omission from the starting lineup in the subsequent four top clashes that Barca have contested yields a bewildering thought. As well as scoring on an infamous night at the Camp Nou, Martens racked up the second-highest number (0.98) on the xA (expected assists) metric. Ultimately while the team is still winning and Martens is proving to be a worthy contributor to the squad’s ongoing success, it makes little sense to change a winning formula. Nevertheless, it remains an enigma whether Cortes and his coaching staff would elect to use Martens as a more peripheral figure if that encounter against Wolfsburg would be repeated and it is certainly an interesting narrative to follow when the Spanish league leaders continue their European journey in February.
For now, Barcelona Femení remains on course to achieve their objective of retaining the league title and few would bet against them adding the Supercopa de España Femenina and Copa de la Reina to their trophy cabinet in the next few months. But the one trophy the Blaugrana side are craving the most is the Women’s Champions League and, with a fully-firing Lieke Martens in their ranks exploited correctly, this season unquestionably presents their greatest chance yet of ending that drought.