In the next two weeks, arguably Europe’s two best teams this season will be facing off in the semifinals of the 2020-21 UEFA Women’s Champions League.
After two breezy Round of 32 and Round of 16 Champions League ties that ended in 8-2 and 9-0 aggregate scores, respectively, Barcelona faced Manchester City in the quarterfinals. The blaugranas overcame their first real challenge of this year’s UWCL campaign with a 4-2 aggregate score. On the other side, PSG’s journey to the semifinals was far more chaotic than Barcelona’s. Their Round of 16 tie against Czech side Sparta Praha was decided on 5-3 aggregate after PSG was forced to forfeit their away leg 3-0 due to multiple COVID-19 positives. In the first match of the next leg they faced their longtime rivals Lyon, where they were defeated by a late penalty from captain Wendie Renard. The second leg at the Groupama Academy Stadium was postponed to 3 weeks after the first leg, when Lyon contracted fifteen COVID-19 positives within the team and staff. In a shocking but seemingly inevitable loss, the title-holders fell to PSG on away goals with a 2-2 aggregate score.
Amandine Henry walks on as PSG celebrate behind her / Johannes Simon for UEFA
This year’s UWCL is a special one, because for the first time since 2015, it is guaranteed that the final will be played between two sides who have never won the trophy before. There are two teams left in the competition who have already made it to a final- Paris Saint-Germain (2015, 2017) and FC Barcelona (2019). Since these respective finals, both teams have completely transformed themselves, becoming Europe’s two most dominant forces.
This isn’t to say that PSG haven’t had incredible success within the past decade. They’ve been one of the best teams in Europe for many, many years. Unfortunately for them, their success and quality has been overshadowed by the seemingly omnipotent force that is Olympique Lyonnais Féminin.
Their Lyon-based rivals haven't given them room to breathe since the Parisian club was taken over by Nasser El-Khelaifi of Qatar Sports Investments in 2012. For every milestone PSG reached, there was Lyon a few steps ahead of them, reaching even higher highs in both France and Europe. Lyon’s unrelenting dominance prevented PSG from winning any major titles- league, cup, or UWCL- until 2018. It was in the 2018 Coupe de France Féminin final where PSG started to show themselves as a realistic threat to Lyon. 19-year-old wonderkid Marie-Antoinette Katoto rocketed a shot into Sarah Bouhaddi’s net to win PSG their first major trophy since 2010, ending Lyon's streak of 6 consecutive French cup titles.
Since 2018’s unexpected triumph, the team has only gotten stronger. PSG’s rise to the very top has coincided with the arrival of players like Christiane Endler and Irene Paredes, and the development of players like Sandy Baltimore, Grace Geyoro, Kadidiatou Diani, and the aforementioned wonderkid Marie-Antoinette Katoto. It’s taken a few years, but in just the past couple of months, it seems that everything has started to click with the Parisian team.
The first meeting of the 2020-21 D1 Arkema campaign between Lyon and PSG began with a shock, when Marie-Antoinette Katoto once again put Lyon to bed with a slow-rolling strike that would hand them their first league defeat since 2016. This win put PSG at the top of the table where they still remain, with just 5 matchdays left to play. Lyon show more signs of slowing down and slipping up than PSG do, so they very well could lose their 14-year-long winning streak of league titles.
Marie-Antoinette Katoto of PSG watches her strike roll into the net against Lyon on November 20, 2020 / Aurelien Meunier for PSG
Just 5 months later in the UWCL, a similarly-taken goal from Grace Geyoro and an own goal from Lyon’s captain Wendie Renard would be the final nail in Lyon’s coffin. It was the first defeat Lyon had taken in Europe since 2017, and the first time since 2015 that Lyon wouldn’t be winning the Champions League.
Perhaps it was lucky for PSG that this Lyon team is in the worst shape they’ve been in since the 2000’s. This year's campaign has been rife with injury and illness complications for them. Just within this past month, players and staff at Lyon contracted fifteen COVID-19 cases, and season-long injuries from core players like Ada Hegerberg and Griedge Mbock-Bathy have dealt a huge blow to their attacking power and defensive stability. However, anyone who knows football understands that the years of faith and investment PSG has put into this team was going to pay off eventually. This is the year it finally did.
While PSG have been a force in Europe since 2012, Barcelona have only been on top for a few years at most. To put it in perspective, the year PSG made it to their first UWCL final (2015) was the year that Barcelona professionalized their team. Since then, Barcelona’s rise came about quicker and with more force than anyone could have imagined.
Barcelona’s rise can be credited to the same things as PSG’s rise- quality youth development with a secondary focus on big-name transfers. High-profile signings like Caroline Graham-Hansen, Mapi León and Lieke Martens, coupled with the development of players like Alexia Putellas, Patri Guijarro and Aitana Bonmatí, are what created a solid core of quality and experience.
Barcelona debuted in the Champions League in 2012, just one year after PSG did. The Catalans won their first league title in 2011-12, and were humbled in the following season’s Round of 32 matchup against Arsenal, a tie that ended 0-7. It took them 5 years after that to reach the semifinals, where they were blown out by PSG for the second season in a row on a 1-5 aggregate loss. In the summer following that loss, Barcelona made their most important move ever in the transfer market when they got ahold of Lieke Martens’ signature. After that 2016-17 campaign, all of their focus was centered on getting stronger in Europe as they lagged behind on domestic success.
It took 7 years, but FCB Femení reached their first Champions League final in 2019 after defeating Bayern, who are also competing in this year’s semifinals. That year’s final was the biggest game of their history, and was also one of the worst losses of their history- a 4-1 humbling from, you guessed it, Lyon. Players reflect on the severity of this loss as a wake-up call to stop settling for mediocrity and to be serious in their pursuit of European glory. That same summer, they upped the frequency and intensity of their training sessions, let go of nearly all of their dead weight, and invested in the arrival of Caroline Graham-Hansen from VFL Wolfsburg and the return of Jenni Hermoso from Spanish rivals Atlético Madrid Femenino.
FC Barcelona Femení huddle after their 4-1 loss to Olympique Lyonnais in the 2019 UEFA Womens Champions League Final / Matthew Ashton for AMA
The team’s changes post-defeat brought about an unprecedented level of excellence within their domestic campaigns. In the 2019-20 season, Barcelona went unbeaten in all domestic competitions, which earned them a league title, a Supercopa, and a Copa de la Reina (the 2019-20 cup final was played during the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 postponements).
Their European dream took a step back though, when they were defeated 1-0 by Wolfsburg in the 2019-20 UWCL, in a one-leg knockout format due to COVID-19 complications. Once again, though, they came back stronger, and so far have recorded 24 wins, zero losses and zero draws in the league, with 125 goals scored and just 5 conceded. This is the most competitive the Primera Iberdrola has been in years, but Barcelona have still managed to sink every single opponent they’ve faced, with an average of 5 goals scored per match and 1 goal conceded about every 5 matches.
Since both teams are in ridiculous form, a lot of this tie will be played in the mental game. Lyon are sure to come back swinging after their disaster of a season is over- are PSG prepared to take advantage of their defeat? Are the Parisians truly done being second-best? On the other side, will Barcelona be able to overcome their poor finishing in big games? Are they ready to put their crushing defeats against Lyon and Wolfsburg behind them and return to the top? Regardless of the outcome, whichever team gets past their biggest mental block is most likely going to come out of this unshaken and ready to win the entire thing.
Head to Head:
PSG have played Barcelona in Champions League matches four times, and all but one of those meetings have ended in defeat for Barcelona. PSG have a record of 3 wins, 1 draw and zero losses against the Catalan club.
Those four meetings were in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Champions League campaigns, and it was PSG who ended Barcelona’s campaign two years in a row. At that point, PSG were still at the top of Europe, defined by players like Brazilian striker Cristiane, French striker Marie-Laure Delie, and Swedish midfielder Caroline Seger. Barcelona were still on the up-and-up, with a similar core of who they have now, consisting of Spaniards Jenni Hermoso, Alexia Putellas, Marta Torrejón, and Patri Guijarro.
Leila Ouahabi and Alexia Putellas defend Cristiane in the 2016-17 UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinals / Xavier Bonilla for Nurphoto
Lineup predictions for first leg:
For the first leg, PSG will likely play their standard starting XI, but with two big absences- Luana and Diani. The day before the tie, PSG manager Olivier Echouafni confirmed that for at least the first match, Diani would be out because of an ankle injury. Last month, Luana picked up a long-term injury as well (ruptured cruciate ligament), so she will not play in either leg. PSG have no major suspensions.
Tiane Endler (GK)
Ashley Lawrence, Irene Paredes ©, Paulina Dudek, Perle Morroni
Sara Däbritz, Formiga, Grace Geyoro
Ramona Bachmann, Marie-Antoinette Katoto, Sandy Baltimore
Barcelona’s lineup could vary a lot, specifically in the striker, left-wing and defensive midfield positions. Starting striker Asisat Oshoala had foot surgery after picking up an injury in Barcelona’s second leg match against Manchester City. Both her and Lluís Cortés say that she has recovered very well but she has not yet been medically cleared. Starting defensive midfielder Patri Guijarro is sitting on a yellow-card accumulation suspension and will be absent for the first leg. Depending how her current injury evolves, she may be out for the second leg as well.
Sandra Paños (GK)
Marta Torrejón, Andrea Pereira, Mapi León, Leila Ouahabi
Aitana Bonmatí, Kheira Hamraoui, Alexia Putellas ©
Caroline Graham-Hansen, Jennifer Hermoso, Mariona Caldentey
Leila Ouahabi vs Kadidiatou Diani
Barcelona’s mainstay at leftback, Leila Ouahabi, has consistently been one of the team’s biggest weak points this season. Cortés has started her in each of Barcelona’s biggest matches so far this season when she’s been healthy, so if Diani returns for the second leg, Leila is likely to go up against her.
Diani is one of PSG’s most clinical players, with a D1 Arkema assist record rivalled only by players like Dzsenifer Marozsan. She is an incredibly intelligent, fast, and quick-thinking player, who is more than capable of holding her own against the best of the best defenders.
While Leila may be a defensive liability, she had two very quality performances in last year’s Champions League quarterfinal and semifinal matches. If she wants to show up in this tie, she could have arguably the world’s best right-winger to go up against (pending injury evolution, of course).
Mapi León vs Marie-Antoinette Katoto
This pair are two of the best players in their respective teams. Mapi León will have a hard time defending against Katoto, and Katoto will have a hard time breaking through the wall that is Mapi León and her centerback partner Andrea Pereira.
If Mapi needs to cover for Leila like she usually does, there’s a good chance she’ll eventually be caught out of position due to a defensive error on the left. Katoto taking advantage of defensive errors is something she does best- the goal she scored against Lyon earlier this year was a result of a miscommunication between the left side of Lyon’s backline and Bouhaddi.
Irene Paredes vs. Jenni Hermoso
Only a few days ago, SPORT reported that Irene Paredes, PSG’s captain, had already completed her medical and was set to return to Spain to become Barcelona’s first signing of the summer. If this report is true, this could either serve to be a major blow to PSG’s morale, or motivate them even more to win it for their captain. PSG's defensive stability relies on her, so she'll be facing a lot of pressure, especially against the joint-top scorer of this year's Champions League- Jenni Hermoso.
Paredes and Barcelona’s likely starting striker Jenni Hermoso are two players that know each other very well. They played together for a season at PSG, and currently co-captain their national team, Spain, where they have played with each other since 2011. They are more than aware of each other's biggest weaknesses and biggest strengths, and will both do whatever they can to take advantage of their knowledge of each other.
Irene Paredes and Jenni Hermoso of PSG following their match against Lyon on May 18, 2018 / Dave Winter for Icon Sport
This tie will offer an opportunity for either club to prove to themselves and to Europe how prepared they are to win it all. Barcelona have the chance to get over their dreaded “French Wall,” as 4 out of their last 5 Champions League campaigns were ended by French opposition, including 2 losses to PSG. PSG already scaled their own "French Wall" in Lyon, but will need to keep their momentum going against one of the most in-form, offensively dominant teams in Europe if they want to reach the top.
The first leg will be played on April 25, 2021, at the Stade Georges-Lefèvre.
The second leg will be played at the Estadi Johan Cruyff on May 2, 2021.