As the 19/20 Women’s Champions League is less than ten days away from resuming under exceptional qualities, we rate the chances of the favourites and all quarter-final teams to win the trophy.
The 2019/20 UEFA Women’s Champions League is finally making its return after almost nine months of no European matches. The final eight teams will be picking up where they left off in November, each with five months of rest, plenty of new transfers, and a drive to win the biggest competition in Europe.
Due to the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, the competition needed to be completely reformatted, postponed and moved to a different location. UEFA also put in a set of player registration rules that have a major impact on how teams will line up. These changes will certainly make for an unpredictable and exciting tournament.
After five long months of waiting for European football, it’s finally time we take an in-depth look at each of the remaining team’s chances to win it all.
Olympique Lyonnais Féminin: 9/10
The perennial UWCL winners and the current European Champions Olympique Lyonnais boast the best overall squad among the other title contenders. The club has big experience in this tournament, a solid defence and strength in attack. Lyon has almost everything to their advantage, so it only makes sense that they are considered as the main candidate to win the Champions League for the fifth time in a row.
This summer has been another huge one for Lyon, who have seen multiple big-name transfers in the form of Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, Ellie Carpenter, Lola Gallardo, and Sakina Karchaoui. Additionally, they have had contract extensions from two of their most crucial players in Dzsenifer Marozsán and Sarah Bouhaddi, who were heavily rumoured to be on their way out to Utah this summer.
If there were any doubts about their success, they would come from injuries and drops in form. The loss of Griedge Mbock and Ada Hegerberg, two of their most crucial players, will probably be their downfall if it comes. In Mbock’s absence, the club has chosen to rely on Canadian defender Kadeisha Buchanan who can be shaky at times. Lyon’s forward line has also looked a little weak since the season’s top scorer Ada Hegerberg tore her cruciate ligament halfway through the season.
Again, Lyon are favourites to claim the title once more | Photo by Laszlo Szirtesi via Getty Images
Lyon has one of the more difficult roads to the trophy, having to face match-ready Bayern and then one of PSG or Arsenal in the semi-finals. The quarter-final game between Lyon and Bayern is going to be very interesting. Aside from being fully match-fit, Bayern has strengthened their squad this summer with some of the best young talents of German women’s football. Assuming Lyon move along to the semi-final, they will have to face one of Arsenal or PSG, two sides that surely feel unsatisfied after their below-par league and cup seasons. They will do everything they can to make Lyon’s path to the final more difficult –– or even end it completely.
Even considering their injury woes and a difficult path to the title, Lyon doesn’t have much to worry about. The team dominated the French league like usual despite Ada’s absence, had a successful preseason in Poland, and even though they didn’t play particularly well in their final two Coupe de France matches, they still left with a title. At the end of the day, Lyon are Lyon, so chances are good that they will get the last laugh.
VfL Wolfsburg: 9/10
VfL Wolfsburg will definitely be one of the teams to beat for the rest of the tournament. Their squad boasts some of the best talents in the world in their midfield and attack. Their attack, specifically, consists of players like Ewa Pajor, Alexandra Popp, Fridolina Rolfö, and one of the greatest strikers alive, Pernille Harder. Harder in particular looks hungrier than she ever has, having her best season to date with a Europe-high 27 league goals.
On the contrary, Wolfsburg’s defence is by far their weakest point. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have made many defensive improvements in this transfer window, evident by their three goals allowed against SGS Essen in the DFB Pokal final. The absence of Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir for this team was visible during the match with the absence of the player in the middle of the pitch.
Despite the loss of Sara Björk and her invaluable impact on Wolfburg’s midfield, the club have added Lena Oberdorf to their ranks, one of the best young talents in Germany. In addition, they have signed experienced goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek from PSG, defender Kathrin Hendrich from Bayern and forward Pauline Bremer from Manchester City, who had a great season with 10 goals in 12 games.
Wolfsburg come from winning the Frauen-Bundesliga | Photo by by Maja Hitij via Getty Images
Of all the other clubs, Wolfsburg have the easiest overall path to the final. After the match against Glasgow City that they are almost certain to win, they are going to face one of the two Spanish sides remaining in the competition, in Barcelona or Atlético de Madrid. Either opponent will be a major challenge. Atleti has seriously bolstered their squad this summer and are hoping to shock Europe after going trophyless for the first season in years. Barcelona are one of the only remaining unbeaten sides in Europe this season with by far the deadliest overall attack, and they are out for revenge after the 4–1 thrashing they took in last year’s final.
With this being one of Harder’s final years at the club, her and her teammates are probably the most motivated, competitive side remaining in the tournament. If they showed anything in the DFB Pokal final, it’s that they are determined to pull out a win no matter how difficult it gets. Wolfsburg will be sure to give it their all despite their setbacks and challenges.
FC Barcelona Femení: 8/10
FC Barcelona Femení is another one of the serious contenders remaining in this competition. After their 4–1 loss in last year’s final, their team has undergone some radical changes in personnel, tactics, and mentality. The signing of Caroline Graham Hansen from Wolfsburg and the return of both Jenni Hermoso and Andrea Falcón from Atlético de Madrid have played a major role in the team’s success this year.
They have won the Supercopa Femenina with a final score of 10–1 against Real Sociedad, collected their fifth league title with 9 points clear, made it to the semi-final of the still-in-progress Copa de la Reina and have been unbeaten so far in every competition this season.
Barça have learned a lot since last year’s Champions League loss | Photo by Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images
Similarly to Wolfsburg, Barcelona’s biggest weakness is their defence. The four goals conceded against Lyon last year was no fluke, they simply were not ready to handle the relentless, unforgiving nature of a world-class forward line like Lyon’s. Since that match, Barcelona’s starting defence has somewhat improved, but there have still been points where they have been tested, such as their narrow 3–2 win against Atlético de Madrid in the Supercopa Femenina semi-final.
Like a typical Barcelona team, they like to keep possession, which unfortunately makes them more susceptible to counter-attacks. Barcelona are also the only team remaining in the Champions League that have made no senior-team signings this summer in any area, let alone in defence. Instead, the club has opted to promote some very talented players from their B team, two of which are defenders that can step up if needed.
“The defeat in Budapest [in the 2019 Champions League final] was a big lesson for everyone, as it showed us which level was required to be European champions. If you want to be European champions, you need to reach that level. I don’t know if we have reached it, but we have got closer to it”
Their road to the final has been one of the more difficult ones after having to play Juventus in the round of 32. Now they face bitter rivals Atleti in the quarter-finals. Regardless of the fact that four of Atlético’s players will be out due to COVID diagnoses, they are certainly aching to have the last laugh after blaugrana side beat them two trophies so far this season. If they make it past the rojiblancos then they are likely to face Wolfsburg, which could be one of the best matches of the season due to their similar level of ability and comparable strengths and weaknesses.
“We have been training a lot since last year, the change in mentality was very significant in the team and staff, we made a step forward and I am convinced that we are closer to that level and ready to compete against everyone”
With home-field advantage, Barça Femení are looking for another shot at being the first Spanish team to lift the Champions League trophy, and they look much more prepared than last year to do so. Their attack has been outstanding this entire season, and their forwards Graham Hansen, Lieke Martens, Jenni Hermoso and especially Asisat Oshoala all hit a stride before the COVID break, and don’t seem to have lost that groove as evident by their successful preseason.
Other outfield players in Mapi León, Alexia Putellas, Patri Guijarro and Marta Torrejón have all had some career-defining seasons, and the team as a whole seems more than motivated to reach another Champions League final –– hopefully winning it all this time around.
PSG Féminine: 6/10
PSG Féminine are an underrated but quality team that is often left out of the conversation of UWCL powerhouses. It’s easy to forget that they’ve featured in the later stages of almost every Champions League campaign in the past five years, including reaching two finals. Their dominance is often overshadowed by their superior French rivals Lyon, who have consistently won in every international and domestic competition for the better part of a decade.
Perhaps one of their most overlooked qualities is their highly-effective front three comprised of Marie-Antoinette Katoto, Nadia Nadim, and Kadidiatou Diani. Recently-signed Swiss veteran Ramona Bachmann and young Canadian star Jordyn Huitema add to the depth they already have going forward.
PSG hope to achieve unexpected European glory | Photo by Fred Tanneau / AFP via Getty Images
Their biggest worry would be that both their midfield and defence don’t look quite as solid overall. PSG has experienced and creative players like Sara Däbritz, young talented midfielders like Grace Geyoro, and reliable veteran players at the back like Irene Paredes and Christiane Endler –– but the individual talent isn’t everything. It’s the lack of depth and limited team cohesiveness that’s the most concerning.
Success in the quarter-finals against Arsenal will depend on PSG’s offensive trio clicking, something they struggled to do in the final stages of the Coupe de France. Their defense will also be tested because Arsenal is a team that likes to attack and has clinical offensive players like Daniëlle van de Donk and Vivianne Miedema. If PSG wins against the North London team, they will most likely face Lyon in the semi-finals, making PSG’s chances rather slim considering the years of difficult losses that the Parisians have against Lyon. If they showed anything in the 2018 Coupe de France, though, it’s that a team like PSG with tons of offensive ability and a chip on their shoulder should never be counted out.
Arsenal WFC: 6/10
Before the coronavirus break, Arsenal WFC were looking in very poor shape. They had just left off from the domestic season with a tough loss in the Conti Cup final against London rivals Chelsea, had such a thin squad that their bench was filled with reserves, and had multiple staring players like Miedema, Van de Donk, Jill Roord, Lia Wälti and Beth Mead out with injuries. The rules put in place by UEFA regarding UWCL player eligibility had Arsenal’s chances of getting past the quarterfinals looking even bleaker.
After some adjustments to said rules, things are looking up for the Gunners. Arsenal looks like a better team and their chances of making it to the final have improved drastically with five months of rest, healing and some new signings in Steph Catley, Malin Gut, Lydia Williams and Noëlle Maritz.
Arsenal’s chances have increased post-lockdown | Photo by Catherine Ivill via Getty Images
With elite players like Miedema, Van de Donk, Williamson and Catley at their disposal, they could create problems for both PSG and Lyon. PSG statistically has the most productive attack in Europe and was very solid defensively in the recent Coupe de France final, meaning that matchup will certainly not be easy. If they win, they will most likely face Lyon in the semi-finals –– a tough match, but as long as the ball is in play, everything is possible. Arsenal’s chances aren’t the best, but they’re a force that should not be underestimated.
Bayern Munich Frauen: 4/10
Out of all the teams in the knockout stages, the team that has to go through the most difficult path is Bayern Munich Frauen. Unfortunately for them, their first match back from their runner-up Bundesliga campaign will be facing the mighty Olympique Lyon.
Bayern has shown many times during the 19/20 Frauen Bundesliga season that they can play football very effectively and with a good organization in the defence. If they were drawn almost any other team, their chances would’ve been much better, especially given their excellent moves in this summer’s transfer window. Bayern have signed two young German football talents: Lea Schüller from SGS Essen and Klara Bühl from SC Freiburg. They have also signed a few experienced players- Sarah Zadrazil from Turbine Potsdam, Marina Hegering from SGS Essen, and Hanna Glas from PSG.
Bayern has a herculean task ahead of them to win the UWCL trophy. Magull and Co. need a rock-solid game plan, luck, and a lot of faith if they want a chance at getting past the quarterfinals. If they somehow do that, it would prove to be anybody’s game.
Atlético de Madrid Femenino*: 3/10
Chances for winning the Champions League looked low but still do-able for Spanish side Atlético de Madrid. They are a strong team and have been the most dominant side in Spain’s domestic competitions for years, but this season they slipped behind a reborn Barcelona team and lost out on every available domestic trophy.
Luckily for them this summer was a big one, as they lost Olga García, both of their right-backs in Caro Aria and Kenti Robles, and both of their keepers in Sari van Veenendaal and Lola Gallardo, but picked up on Hedvig Lindahl, Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, Merel van Dongen, Turid Knaak and Emelyne Laurent, amongst a few others. They have played just one preseason match and had to abandon others due to potential COVID exposure, so it’s difficult to predict how this new team will shape up to any of the bigger teams.
Atlético de Madrid beat Man City in the Champions League last 16 | Photo by Denis Doyle via Getty Images
Taking all this into account, the newest “Comunicado Oficial” –– official announcement –– from the club is that the team has cancelled all training sessions just ten days before the match due to six positive COVID cases, meaning UEFA may have to step in to determine the outcome of their quarter-final match against Barcelona.
Per UEFA’s COVID-19 rules, Atleti must be able to field 13 healthy players to play a match. If there is no healthy keeper, the match will be rescheduled, and a reschedule isn’t possible, they’ll be forced to forfeit the quarterfinal match 3–0. A lot of this is up in the air, but one thing is for sure: UEFA will likely do everything they can to avoid a reschedule. Assuming that at least some of those infected are starters, Atlético will either have to field an incomplete starting 11 and a limited bench or forfeit the match completely. The outlook wasn’t looking promising for the team to begin with, but these developments have brought their chances down even lower.
Glasgow City FC: 1/10
Glasgow City’s chances of beating Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals aren’t fully zero, but they are minimal, to say the least. Preseason hasn’t been boding well for them after they took a 4–0 beating from Manchester United Women. Nevertheless, the club deserves a lot of respect for making it all the way to the quarter-finals.
They are a team that consists mostly of players little known to the general public, but a team that has dominated the league in Scotland for several years. Glasgow City will surely fight and won’t give up easily, and this match will give them a necessary experience for growth and improvement. It will also be a good test for Wolfsburg and their other opponents to see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
Will Glasgow City focus on defence and counter-attacks or will they try to surprise the German hegemony with something unexpected? This match seems to be only a formality, but its course can have a significant impact on the further results in the tournament and the way of each team to the final.
Even though the outcomes seem easy to predict on paper, nothing is conclusive. This tournament has undergone a lot of major changes since the restart and teams are in a very unfamiliar position after four or five months of no playing or training. Hopefully, everything will continue to go as planned in the three remaining knockout stages. We will know for sure if our predictions are right once one of these teams finally lifts the 2020 Champions League trophy after an unexpectedly long campaign.
Caroline Graham Hansen growing into the leadership role among Barça’s attackers
As shown in the Champions League semi-final loss against VfL Wolfsburg, Barça Femení may be short of leadership qualities upfront, but 25-year-old Caroline Graham Hansen is starting to provide just that.
After the loss against VFL Wolfsburg, FC Barcelona Femení learned that they needed to improve upon a lot of things if they wanted to be the best team in Europe. Many of Barcelona’s unresolved issues were exposed that night, such as poor match management, questionable team selection, and lack of clinical attacking.
However, the most standout thing that went wrong for Barcelona was their season-long issues with finishing, which came to a head at the worst possible time. Upon reflection, it was clear that Barcelona lacked both a positive mentality and a commanding leadership personality up top. That role is still desperately needed if Barcelona wants to be champions of Europe, and of all their current forwards, Caroline Graham Hansen may be the player best suited to pick up that role.
Ahead of the Barcelona v Wolfsburg, it was difficult to predict who the winner was going to be. Both teams were very similar in that they were renowned for the same matter: their outstanding attacking strength. For Wolfsburg, it was Pernille Harder, Fridolina Rolfo, Ewa Pajor, Alexandra Popp and Svenja Huth. For Barcelona, it was Lieke Martens, Mariona Caldentey, Jenni Hermoso, Asisat Oshoala and Caroline Graham Hansen.
Understandably, one of the most popular predictions about the game was that it was going to be a goal-fest. It didn’t quite work out that way though, as both teams’ forwards struggled to find the back of the net.
Barcelona in particular had a shocking night in terms of finishing. 14 shots with only one on target gave them a 9% shot accuracy. Something was clearly off about them, especially considering that everyone knows what these players are capable of. At that point, their front four was arguably Europe’s strongest overall attacking threat. It is for this reason that this loss and their lack of clinical finishing was 100% mental.
Barcelona’s captains and other leadership personalities are all midfielders, defenders or keepers. Consider Vicky Losada, Alexia Putellas, Marta Torrejón, Sandra Paños, Patri Guijarro and some of the younger players like Laia Codina and Aitana Bonmatí. These footballers in particular have captaincy qualities in multiple aspects. They command the play on the pitch, they aren’t afraid to give orders to anyone regardless of talent or superiority, they perform at a high level for 90+ minutes, they aren’t afraid to step up publicly and take responsibility with the media, and they are deeply dedicated to the club. What else do they all have in common? None of them are forwards.
This isn’t to say Barcelona’s attackers aren’t mentally strong. You have to be to play at this level. But at this moment, there is no outstanding player in attack who shows the traits of a captain. Which of the starting forwards can be the answer to this problem?
The two players that can already be eliminated from the conversation are Asisat Oshoala and Lieke Martens. These are two of the most accomplished players for their respective countries and have been at the top of the world for a while, but they don’t display many leadership qualities. Neither of them is very vocal or commanding, they aren’t too keen on giving directions, and, most importantly, their mentality in a game typically depends on those around them. There is nothing wrong with either of them not being leaders, but these two just won’t be the ones to do it.
Caroline Graham Hansen, wearing the captain armband with Norway’s national team | Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFP via Getty Images
Jennifer Hermoso is unlike Asisat and Martens in this regard. She’s a record-breaking veteran for both club and country and she even holds captaincy for Spain. Her presence and reputation as one of Spain’s greatest ever footballers command respect on its own.
However, she is a player who prefers to lead by example and move in silence. This is a perfectly valid leadership style in itself, but it doesn’t suit the needs of Barcelona. Jenni was one of Barcelona’s best performers against Wolfsburg, but her top-notch performance clearly wasn’t enough. The team needed more, and despite her leadership qualities and veteran status, she couldn’t provide it.
Additionally, culés understandably don’t want to think about it, but Jenni isn’t getting any younger. She isn’t the team’s future, and it wouldn’t make much sense for the forward line to structure themselves around her leadership.
This only leaves one other established player amongst the four starting forwards: enter Caroline Graham Hansen.
Graham Hansen is still just 25 years old but has gone through a lot in her career. She has had two heartbreaks in two Women’s Champions League finals and was injured during both of them. Her international career has been similar: she missed the 2015 Women’s World Cup due to injury and suffered three straight losses in the group stages of the 2017 Euros as Norway’s FA was dealing with deep dysfunction. Like Rory Smith put it, her career has long been a “question mark” in the eyes of many. The way she has overcome her own doubts since then is unlike most players in this sport.
Hansen has become a different animal as she has gotten older. No Wolfsburg fan can forget how she kneeled down and pumped her fists after scoring the decisive penalty kick against Bayern Munich in the 2018 DFB Pokal Final. No Norwegian – or Australian – can forget how in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, she kept a stone-cold face, looked Lydia Williams dead in the eyes, and slotted Norway’s first penalty of the shootout straight past her, raising her arms in celebration and commanding Norway to the quarter-finals.
When she is needed to step up, when she is needed to be a commanding force, when she is needed to be a leader, she has done it in some of the biggest matches of her recent career. Norway’s captain Maren Mjelde echoed this exact thought in an interview to FIFA.com from September 2019.
“In the last two years she has grown an awful lot, in two ways that complement each other: she is a great leader and a great team player at the same time. All her energies go into helping the team to play better and win. She was crucial for us at the World Cup and I still don’t think we have seen the best of her. She has got the quality to change games, and when it comes to one-on-one situations, she’s the best in the world…She has become a natural leader”Maren Mjelde, Norway’s captain
This display of mentality didn’t stop when she got to Spain either. In her first season with Barcelona, she was a pivotal part of the attack and had no fear approaching any defender. With 24 direct goal involvements in all competitions, it’s clear she is already comfortable with her role in the team.
Graham Hansen also has a clear love for Barcelona and has since she was a child. Despite only being present in Catalonia for a season, Caroline Graham Hansen is one of the most vocally committed players in this current group at FC Barcelona. Her words after the Wolfsburg semi-final loss reflect this in two different ways.
“I would say today we were better which proves that what Barça have been doing in recent years has been good, we are here to be reckoned with next year. We will go home and keep on training and improving because we want to avenge this defeat next year”Caroline Graham Hansen, via UEFA TV after losing against Wolfsburg
But on her Instagram, she chose a softer tone, expressing her love and dedication to the club, calling it “her home” and using the hashtag #soyculé (I am a culé): “I’m so proud to be a part of this team. This club. This family. Football isn’t always fair. That’s the sport. I accept that. We will come back. I know. We know. This is my home now. Thanks for having my back #soyculé”.
Caroline Graham Hansen admittedly has had some growing pains in this very new environment, but with this loss, she has only shown a drive to improve. She has everything at her disposal to be a leader in the attacking third. It’s her dedication, hunger, and ever-improving mentality that makes her the most likely player to become a leader for Barcelona’s forwards.