On Saturday May 21st, Olympique Lyonnais Féminin and FC Barcelona Femení will face off in a UEFA Women's Champions League Final matchup that women's football fans have been dreaming of for years. This match will be Lyon's tenth Champions League final where they will seek their eighth trophy, numbers that speak to their success, longevity, and dedication. On the contrary, this will be the third final for defending champions Barcelona, where they will be seeking their second trophy.
Barcelona- who won last year's Champions League final by a record margin of 4-0- steamrolled each of their opponents in this year's UWCL campaign on their way to the final. Their performances between this season and the last have caused them to be hailed as one of, if not the single greatest women's football team the sport has ever seen. Many believe that women's football has never seen such a tactically sound, imposing, and dominant team before this Barcelona side. If their on-the-pitch dominance wasn't enough, Barcelona broke a 23-year-old attendance record for a women's football match twice in one month. They are on top of the world at the moment, setting the standard for what women's football should look like.
On the other side of the stick is Lyon, who have spent the past two years in a strenuous rebuilding process. Lyon's six-season-long streak of Champions League wins was broken by their arch rivals PSG last season, following a massive COVID-19 outbreak in Lyon's squad. This loss, in addition to their first season since 2006 without winning the French league, resulted in the sacking of coach Jean-Luc Vasseur. Women's football legend Sonia Bompastor was hired in his place, and was tasked with the duty of rebuilding the biggest dynasty in women's football history. She did so by signing two of PSG's best players, Perle Morroni and Tiane Endler, and have since beaten PSG in the semifinals of this year's Champions League to regain their place in a UWCL final.
Lyon's brief hiatus from the top has caused a lot of people to forget just how good they used to be, something that has irked Lyon star Ada Hegerberg:
"There was women's football before Barcelona, and it was played here for years [...] You have to win back to regain your place in world football. We have the opportunity to do so this season, and I remind you that we have never lost against Barcelona." [L’Equipe]
In what may be a response to Hegerberg’s comments, her Norwegian teammate Caroline Graham Hansen said:
"I think it hurts [Lyon] a bit that everybody recognizes us as the best team in the world, or even of history. We never said anything about it. We know that if we want to ever become better than them as the world's best club in history, then we have to start winning more than one Champions League title." [Sports Illustrated]
Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmatí responded with confusion to the tone of contemptness in Hegerberg's statements:
"It's true that we just won the Champions League and this year we haven't won it yet. We're very cautious. Everything that's happening to us is our [doing]. People come to the Camp Nou to see us and to change the world. It should be a joy for Lyon and for Barça. There are no colors here, but a united feeling. In this sense, I don't understand her statements." [Mundo Deportivo]
To Hegerberg's credit, Lyon, who professionalized their team as early as 2006, are the blueprint for investment in women's football. Jean Michel Aulas was the first owner to value women the same as men and give them opportunities to be the best they can be. A decade and a half later, Lyon's long-standing and loyal core continue to dominate the sport. But in defense of Bonmatí and Graham Hansen, Barcelona have built from Lyon's empire and have created a new vision for women's football. Barcelona have shown that with the right marketing, women are capable of attracting audiences within the tens of thousands- something Lyon has notoriously struggled to do despite their success.
Lyon and Barcelona have faced each other three separate times in official competition. The first time they faced each other was during the quarter finals of the 2017-2018 season when Barcelona held Lyon to narrow 1-2 and 0-1 losses over the course of two legs. The third and most notorious meeting was the 2019 UEFA Women's Champions League final where Barcelona were defeated 1-4 thanks to a masterclass from Ada Hegerberg, who scored a hat-trick within 20 minutes. Barcelona's lone goal was scored by Asisat Oshoala, who just recently returned from a 10-week-long period of injury.
Barcelona have faced Lyon a handful of times in unofficial competition, the first being a 2012 friendly that then-European champions Lyon won 3-0 against first-time Spanish champions Barcelona. The most recent friendly meeting was at last summer's WICC pre-season tournament in Portland, where Lyon won 3-2. That match is what many believe to be the precursor to this coming final- high-scoring and fairly evenly-contested.
DF: Carpenter, Mbock, Renard, Bacha
MF: Henry, Macario, Horan
FW: Cascarino, Hegerberg, Malard
Lyon will likely line up with their gala XI, which is a 4-3-3 with an attack-focused midfield, playing Catarina Macario as a 10. With the absence of Amel Majri, Lyon's next best option to replace her is Lindsey Horan. The biggest area of debate for Bompastor will be how she sets up Lyon's left wing- will she go for an ultra-attacking duo of Selma Bacha and Melvine Malard, or will she go for a more balanced approach with Perle Morroni at left back and Bacha at left wing instead? It is more likely that Lyon are prepared to go all-out in exploiting Barcelona's (comparative) weakness on the wings, specifically in the fullback area.
DF: Torrejón, Paredes, León, Rolfö
MF: Bonmatí, Guijarro, Putellas
FW: Graham Hansen, Hermoso, Mariona
Barcelona will field their gala XI just as Lyon will, with their standard 4-3-3 with Patri Guijarro playing as a pivot in midfield. The most notable absence from this starting XI will be Lieke Martens, who is likely not fit enough to start a Champions League final after returning from a months-long period of injury. Another change from last season's final will be the introduction of Fridolina Rolfö to the left back position in the place of Leila Ouahabi. The biggest question will be at the left wing position, where Jonatan Giraldez will have to choose between Cláudia Pina's form and Mariona Caldentey's experience. Otherwise, it is difficult to see any XI other than this one, as Barcelona have minimal options due to many key players being injured or still recovering from injury.
Alexia Putellas vs. Lindsey Horan
Ballon d'Or holder Alexia Putellas will be sure to bring her A-game on Saturday, especially having been heavily rested for the past few weeks in preparation for this final. Between her near-perfect positioning and incredible vision, the Barcelona midfielder can be very difficult to defend against. Horan, who notoriously plays an "enforcer" role in her teams, will be up to that challenge. It would not be surprising if she was tasked with marking Alexia and using her physicality to her advantage.
Wendie Renard vs. Asisat Oshoala
Oshoala is not expected to start Saturday's match given that she is still returning to form after a 10-week-long injury, but she is fairly likely to be a substitute. In that case, Oshoala's speed and positioning would be used as a weapon against Lyon's backline, especially in cases of 1v1s against their defensive rock Wendie Renard. Renard has noticeably been declining for a few seasons now, especially her speed.
Delphine Cascarino vs. Fridolina Rolfö
Fridolina Rolfö, who has spent her career playing as a forward, has made a transition to the left back position this season. This added layer to her game has been a big improvement on the inconsistencies of Leila Ouahabi. However, Barcelona's weak point continues to be their fullbacks, which Bompastor should surely exploit with the skill of Delphine Cascarino. It will be key how Rolfö manages to defend against Cascarino, as well as how Barcelona's left side can handle the Cascarino-Carpenter duo.
After three long years, Lyon and Barcelona finally meet again on the biggest stage. Mentality monsters Lyon, who have managed to crawl themselves back from the worst season in their history, will face Barcelona, who have spent that time evolving into one of the world's greatest ever sides. For Lyon, a win against Barcelona would send a reminder to the world that Lyon are still Lyon despite one bad season, and that they are not leaving any time soon. A win against Lyon would solidify Barcelona's position at the top of Europe. Taking home a second consecutive title would be a fitting end to their dream Champions League campaign, and would surely complete Barcelona's redemption arc from their past Champions League failures.