Why Lieke Martens deserves the 2021 Ballon d'Or Féminin
Ever since the 2019 World Cup, the status of Lieke Martens’ place in an FC Barcelona starting XI has been put into question. Martens suffered a toe injury for the entire first half of the 2019-20 season, and just when she began to regain form again in February of 2020, the pandemic hit. Coming into the 2020-21 season, Lieke Martens was largely utilized as a substitute in key league and Champions League matches.
As the season went on, Lieke played her way into a starting spot and showed up when it mattered in every competition. Between creating 3 of Barcelona's 4 Champions League final goals and giving 3 assists in a Copa de la Reina final, she was essential to Barcelona completing their first continental treble. She was also the only one of Barcelona's 5 nominees who competed in international play at this summer's Olympics as her home country of the Netherlands fought for a medal.
Lieke Martens' time at Barcelona for the past two years has been somewhat complicated. A toe injury picked up during the 2019 Women's World Cup kept her sidelined for her club team for nearly half a year. Upon her return from injury in February 2020, she eased into blistering form, but by the time she had made her comeback, the world shut down from the COVID-19 pandemic. When Barcelona returned in August to play the latter stages of the 2020 Champions League, she was benched for their devastating semi-final defeat against Wolfsburg.
Although Lieke was not injured for the first half of the 2020-21 season, the story was still the same. The first half of her season was mostly spent on the bench, as Lluís Cortés favored Mariona Caldentey who offered more strength in the center of the pitch than on the wings. Regardless of her situation, Lieke made the most of it. She started the first match of the league campaign coming off the bench and scoring against Barcelona's new domestic rivals Real Madrid Femenino. She also started both matches of Barcelona's Round of 32 tie in the Champions League and began her campaign strong with a well-taken volley against PSV Eindhoven. She continued her rich run of form in the UWCL by scoring another two against the same team in the return leg.
Lieke maintained an off the bench role until about March, but transitioned into a "super-sub" role and scored in almost all of the important games where she was benched. This includes her goal against Real Madrid, her goal against Atlético Madrid, and her goal against Espanyol at the first competitive match ever played between women at the Camp Nou.
Lieke has always played the same way, but once she started getting more consistent minutes, her confidence returned. Playing mostly in her natural position on the left-wing, Lieke quickly became one of Barcelona's starting players at the back end of the season. Her passing and vision became more accurate, she was more productive, and she was making more of an effort in defense.
Last season's Champions League is where Lieke showed up the biggest. After being benched for Barcelona's tie against Manchester City, Lieke bounced back in the semifinals. In the second leg at the Estadi Johan Cruyff, she scored a brace against Tiane Endler's PSG to single-handedly secure Barcelona's passage to the final with a 3-2 aggregate score.
In the final against Chelsea, Lieke had one of the best performances of her life. Lieke began the match by immediately attacking up the left side, and within just a few seconds, rocketed a shot on goal that rattled off the crossbar. This shot ended up leading to Barcelona’s first goal of the final. Caroline Graham Hansen cleared Lieke's ricocheted shot, which fell to Fran Kirby. In an attempt to clear it, Kirby lobbed it straight towards Melanie Leupolz's leg, which entered the top left corner to end a beautifully chaotic sequence.
As was clearly Barcelona's game plan, almost every single attack from that goal came from Lieke's left side. Exploiting the inexperienced Niamh Charles, Lieke tore through Chelsea's defense whenever she had the chance. She created Barcelona's third goal as she ran up the wing, dribbled past Charles, and sent the ball into the center where it was picked up by Jenni, passed to Alexia, and then passed to Aitana to score. Lieke made a similar run for Barcelona's fourth goal, dribbling past Charles, getting into Chelsea's box, and passing to Hansen for her to score from a tap-in.
Barcelona won 4-0, proper retribution for their 1-4 Champions League final loss two years prior. That final was the highest margin of victory in a single-legged UEFA Women's Champions League final, which was only made possible by Lieke's utterly dominant performance.
Lieke Martens continued her incredible run of form following the Champions League. In the latter stages of Spain's domestic cup- the Copa de la Reina- she had multiple direct goal contributions that advanced Barcelona to the final. Her most important contributions came in the final against Levante when she bagged a hat-trick of assists. Her final performance brought Barcelona to a 4-2 win as they completed the continental treble for the first time in their history. She ended up as assist leader in the tournament with 5.
By the time the season ended, Lieke broke her own record of goal contributions in a league season. She scored 15 and assisted another 10 goals. In all competitions, she accumulated a total of 35 goal contributions (20 goals + 15 assists) across 36 matches.
Lieke was also one of the defining players of the Netherlands' Olympics campaign. In their first match of their first-ever Olympic games, Lieke scored a brace against Zambia in a match that finished 3-10, the highest-scoring football match in women's Olympics history. She scored another brace in an 8-2 win against China in the Dutch's final group stage match, also one of the highest-scoring football matches in Olympics history. The Dutch only reached the quarterfinals before being defeated by the USA, where Lieke missed a penalty during the regular time that potentially would've won them the match. Regardless of their early exit, the Netherlands made history in what was a rather strange Olympics tournament.
Her form has carried into her club season with Barcelona for a second year. Although she's been bothered with minor injuries, she's continued to have big performances, scoring against Atlético Madrid, Arsenal, Real Sociedad, and Levante. As of her most recent match against Levante, she is on a run of 13 consecutive matches with either a goal or an assist. To top it all off, she was a finalist for the UEFA Women's Player of the Year award and won the award for Tuttosport's Golden Women's Player.
Despite playing most of her matches from the bench this season, Lieke had her best season in Blaugrana by a mile. She was especially at her best when it mattered most and was Barcelona’s most important creator in both of the major finals they played. Neither of her teams could’ve had such historic success without Lieke being a focal point.