UWCL Ro32 – Quality Gap Not Closing Anytime Soon…

This week we (mostly) saw the conclusion of the Women’s Champions League Round of 32, the phase of the competition when all of Europe’s top teams enter. Here D2B outlines the recent state of play across the continent, rounds up what happened over the two-legged ties, and assesses whether there’s any hope that UEFA’s elite club trophy can become more competitive.

European Women’s Football in Brief

What we’re all here for… Photo by Harold Cunningham

One of the central criticisms of the women’s game is that it really isn’t terribly competitive below the top two or three teams in each European footballing super power – France, Spain, Germany and England. And the Champions League seems to compound this perceived imbalance with some outrageous aggregate scores over the two-legged ties.

Even Swedish sides from the well-established Damallsvenskan struggle to do well in the UWCL because, well, all their big stars pretty much end up signing for teams in France, Spain, Germany or England.

Clearly there’s been a hangover from decades of non-investment and an inability by many (in fact most) clubs to see any benefit in developing female footballers or football teams.

This all but stopped the flow of talent into the game in many countries, which in turn ensured that wages remained low to the point where it was simply unviable and unattractive for a woman to become an elite, full-time player.

Even a club like Arsenal, who can point to over 30 years as one of the sport’s leading lights in England, and won the Women’s Champions League in 2007, was unable to justify paying their top female performers an annual salary that amounted to much more than what one of Arsène Wenger’s fringe players could earn in a week.

So, a talent shortfall, combined with low attendance figures and no significant club / TV investment – not a recipe for success. And certainly not issues that the top echelon of the men’s game have had to face for decades.

Some European clubs changed their thinking, of course, and stole a march on the competition in the process. They did this, more-or-less, by allocating sufficient funds away from their men’s teams to build star-studded squads that the next generation of talented youngsters could feed into. These sides now dominate their respective domestic leagues, but it is French Club Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon) which has been the clear European frontrunner in recent years.

Beyond those federations where 2 clubs are granted entry to the UWCL automatically – soon to be 3 for some – women’s clubs / leagues are muddling along as best they can, riding the dying ripples of optimism left over from the 2019 World Cup, and hoping that they can survive through all the Coronavirus upheaval.

The Champions League is a tough, old grind for these teams. Success, unsurprisingly, is getting as far as they can and maybe keeping it goalless against one of the big clubs for 30 minutes. But it would mean almost as much to players of these teams if, for instance, their next away trip to Kazakhstan could be facilitated by (at the very least) an economy class plane seat rather than a 35-hour bus trip. Ok, I exaggerate to make a point. But then again, do I?

Ok. So, scene set. Let’s see how this year’s Round of 32 shaped up.

The Favourites

Clockwise from top left: Fridolina Rolfö (Wolfsburg); Wendie Renard (Lyon); Asisat Oshoala (Barcelona); Irene Paredes (PSG).

There were absolutely no surprises here. Current champs Lyon started the sixth consecutive defence of their European title by qualifying for the round of 16 with room to spare against Juventus. Although they were made to work a lot harder this season by Le Bianconere when compared to the 16-0 aggregate blow-out of Russia’s VDV Ryazan last year.

Taking a slim 3-2 lead into the second match (away goals notwithstanding), German playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsán gave Lyon some breathing space in the 21st minute. The Italians kept a foothold in the match but their hand-grip failed with two minutes to go. Melvine Malard and Belgian international Janice Cayman gave the score some additional sheen enabling Les Fenottes to progress via a 6-2 aggregate win.

Juventus, for their part, must be cursing their bad luck in the Ro32 draw. Last season they pulled 2018/19 runners-up Barcelona out of the hat, before going one better (or worse?) and getting the seven-time winners this year. Given a ‘kinder’ draw they are easily last 16 quality, and with a fairish wind probably quarter finalist standard.

Even without Pernille Harder up front, Wolfsburg have started their Champions League campaign in dominant fashion. They put out their big guns in game one against Serbia’s Spartak Subotica and got the job done there and then winning 5-0, including a brace for Hungarian midfielder Zsanett Jakabfi.

Die Wölfinnen – the ‘She Wolves’; come on, who doesn’t love that nickname? – rested some key players in the return leg, picking up a modest 2-0 victory. So, not the barnstorming 15-0 aggregate win that they had over Kosovo’s Mitrovica last year, but perhaps Head Coach Stephan Lerch is seeking to pace his squad better.

Knocked out in the semi-finals last year (or earlier this year as COVID-19 dictated) Barcelona again look like a side with the kind of strike force that should see them there or thereabouts towards the latter rounds.

They made light work of Dutch Eredivisie Champions PSV Vrouwen winning both matches 4-1.

Barca pride themselves on a very healthy smattering of home grown players, but it was their overseas stars that inflicted much of the damage with Asisat Oshoala (pictured), Lieke Martens and Caroline Graham Hansen all on target.

Striker Joëlle Smits popped up with a last minute consolation goal in each game to give the Dutch side a shade of respectability.

Paris Saint-Germain are Lyon’s closest rivals in the French D1F and have put together a good squad. They got as far as the semi-finals of last season’s competition only to be edged out by their domestic nemesis.

This week they dispatched Polish qualifiers GKS Górnik Leczna 8-1 on aggregate, hitting them for six in the home leg.  Spanish international defender and team captain Irene Paredes (pictured) led the way with a brace, but four other players got on the scoresheet indicating that they’re not short on firepower.

British Sides

Clockwise from top left: Georgia Stanway (Man City); Pernille Harder (Chelsea); Leanne Ross (Glasgow City)

Some might be surprised that Chelsea and Manchester City don’t reside in the ‘favourites’ section. Indeed, they are both expected to do well. But if I’d put them up there with last year’s semi-finalists I’d only have Glasgow City left in here, and it didn’t go nearly as well for the Scots as they would have liked. So for balance…

Manchester City came through against Swedish League runners-up Göteborg 5-1 on aggregate, but it wasn’t quite as straightforward as the final tally suggests.

Norwegian international Vilde Bøe Risa put Göteborg ahead inside two minutes at the ominously named Valhalla Gothenburg. Georgia Stanway (pictured) equalised four minutes before the break but a combination of profligate shooting by the visitors and fine goalkeeping from Jennifer Falk may have had City fans thinking it was going to be one of those days. American Sam Mewis put paid to that level of pessimism in the 76th minute when she scored the winner for Gareth Taylor’s side.

And they never looked back after that. City came away with two away goals, but avoided the need to cash them in. Recently returned winger Lauren Hemp scored in the first half of the second leg and Stanway grabbed a four-minute brace to secure their place in the last 16.

Chelsea got out to an early lead in the first leg against Portuguese qualifiers Benfica. Frank Kirby put them in front on 2 minutes and would go on to become the Blues’ no.1 all-time goal scorer when she converted again in the 33rd minute. 

Millie Bright got one in between and Pernille Harder (pictured) rounded off a miserable first half for As Águias (The Eagles). Beth England chipped in with the fifth after the break and then Benfica found themselves down to ten with a quarter of an hour left when young Nigerian midfielder Christy Ucheibe got her marching orders for a second yellow.

The second leg seemed a formality. Indeed it was. Manager Emma Hayes gave striker Sam Kerr her Champions League debut and the 27-year old Australian said “thanks gaffer” with a 65th minute goal. England continued her good recent form scoring in either half to ensure Chelsea got a thumping 8-0 aggregate win.

Scottish champions Glasgow City, sadly, were not able to repeat their heroics of last season going down 1-3 to Sparta Prague.

They’d given themselves a fighting chance after the first leg despite going in two down at half time. Aoife Colvill set up midfielder Sharon Wojcik who scored in the 51st minute. Lauren Davidson went the closest to equalising for the Scots while goalkeeper Lee Alexander had to make a couple of fine stops to keep them in the tie.

Wojcik’s away goal meant it was all to play for, but it was Prague who started on the front foot at Broadwood, kicking away that crutch early doors. Lucie Martínková, who also scored in the first match, gave *Sparťanky a 7th minute lead after City’s defence gifted possession away close to their penalty area.

(*Spartan Women – another cracking nickname…)

The ladies in orange fashioned some decent chances to score. Neither Joanne Love nor Colvill could hit the target. Jenna Clark and Megan Foley were denied by Sparta keeper Hana Sloupová.

The Czechs, who decided not to do winning the easy way, had Pavlína Nepokojová dismissed with a few minutes left. But this didn’t tip the scales in the way Coach Scott Booth would have hoped. As if to sum up the frustration of the entire three hours of football, Glasgow captain Leanne Ross (pictured) missed a 90th minute penalty – although in reality it was probably too late to salvage the tie by then.

Any Surprises?

Daniela Sabatino – The Fiorentina star left it very, VERY late to break Slavia Prague hearts…

Well, Sparta beating the ladies from Glasgow may have raised a few eyebrows. But, the teams looked pretty well matched in truth. In terms of the other games? No. Not really.

We can assume that the club drawn to play at home in the second leg was the favourite to progress based on UEFA’s Club co-efficiency methodology. All but two did. It should be noted, however, that Danish club Brøndby and Norway’s Vålerenga won’t face off until next year.

Along with Sparta, Fiorentina and Austrian Champions St.Pölten were the only other teams to buck the trend.

Fiorentina knocked out Czech champions Slavia Prague with virtually the last touch of the return match.The Serie A club had given themselves a fair bit of work to do after a 2-2 home draw but dug in for that most ‘Italian’ of results – a 1-0 win. Daniela Sabatino (pictured) scored from Tatiana Bonetti’s free-kick in the 5th minute of stoppage time to break Slavia hearts.

Any Arsenal fans not ignoring this year’s competition (because they’re not in it courtesy of a points per game decision) may have enjoyed Fiorentina’s rear guard action marshalled by their former Irish international centre back Louise Quinn who, incidentally, scored in the first match.

St.Pölten made relatively ‘lighter’ work of beating FC Zürich 3-0 on aggregate – winning their home leg 2-0 courtesy of a five minute goal spree (Stefanie Enzinger and Mateja Zver) late in the second period, and sealing the deal with a solid away victory that featured another late goal, this one from international striker Lisa Makas.

An honourable mention must go out to Ukrainian title holders Kharkiv (or their catchier full name WFC Zhytlobud-2 Kharkiv) who were pipped on away goals by Kazakhstan’s WFC BIIK-Kazygurt. Not the kind of sentence this author would readily be able to deal with in an audio podcast setting.

Kharkiv won the first leg 2-1 with goals from Filenko and Veronika Andrukhiv, but Brenna Connell ensured the Kazakh side didn’t leave empty handed. It proved decisive when Kamila Kulmagambetova’s 35th minute goal was the only score of the second game.

Hammerings

Jelena Čanković – Her 2nd leg hat-trick gets homogenised by the SEVENTEEN goals that Rosengård scored overall.

Quite what constitutes a hammering is open to debate. Over a two-legged tie, more than a five-goal margin feels like things were pretty one-sided. In this category we can place Atlético Madrid’s 9-2 aggregate smashing of Swiss side Servette FC Chênois, along with Bayern Munich’s 6-1 demolition of Ajax.

More than ten goals, though? Surely, that’s a hammering. The number of Ro32 hammerings, mercifully, reduced against last year’s figures from three (Lyon 15-0, Wolfsburg 16-0 and Manchester City 11-1) to one.

Swedish champions Rosengård let rip on Georgian side Lanchkhuti, winning the first leg 7-0 in Tbilisi before really putting their foot on the gas back at the Malmö Idrottsplats and firing in ten without reply.

Serbian midfielder Jelena Čanković (pictured) deserves a special mention for her hat-trick in the home tie.

Anyone Left?

Anastasiia Skorynina (right) – in action against for Minsk versus LSK. Just had to find out what someone with that name looked like…

Yep.

Denmark’s finest Fortuna Hjørring beat ŽNK Pomurje of Slovenia 6-2 on aggregate. The damage was done in the first leg with the Danes comfortably running out three goal winners. That was a bit of a shame because Pomurje gave a better account of themselves in the next match and were locked at 1-1 until the 80th minute when they melted down and conceded two quick fire strikes in less than a minute. Gone in sixty seconds… hmmm, could be a movie in there… The Slovenians got one back late but it wouldn’t be enough.

Last – but not least – LSK Kvinner were on the right side of a 2-1 aggregate victory against ZFK Minsk despite losing the second match at home 1-0. Emilie Haavi and Justine Vanhaevermaet gave the Norwegians what turned out to be an unassailable lead in Belarus. But the wonderfully fairy-tale-named Anastasiia Skorynina converted the solitary goal for Minsk in the 72nd minute of the rematch to give LSK some palpable ‘squeaky bum moments’ and allow the Belarussians to walk away with their heads held high.

So What Did We Learn?

Ermmm… Well, after all that, not much we didn’t already know. A marked imbalance remains between teams in the top European Leagues and everyone else.

In total 110 goals were scored in this year’s Round of 32, compared to 119 in 2019. Acknowledging that Brøndby and Vålerenga have their two matches to play the numbers aren’t a million miles apart.

The winners of the ties outscored losers by 93 goals to 17. In percentage terms this is almost exactly the same as last year – when it was 100 to 19.

The margin for biggest single win matched exactly. Rosengård (2020) and Wolfsburg (2019) each racked up ten goals in one game.

The margin for biggest aggregate win was also similar. Again the Swedes of Rosengård stood out with a 17-0 score line over two legs. Last year Lyon won 16-0 against Ryazan.

There were twelve teams in the Round of 32 this season that weren’t involved at the same point last year. These were Ajax, Benfica (Q), Chelsea, PSV, Rosengård, Górnik Leczna (Q), Lanchkhuti (Q), LSK, Servette, Vålerenga (Q), Kharkiv (Q) and ŽNK Pomurje (Q). Six of these came through the qualifying rounds as indicated with the handy ‘Q’ in brackets.

None of the qualifying teams have yet progressed to the round of 16. Vålerenga will try in February. Kharkiv got the closest to a positive result, losing out on away goals.

Chelsea, Rosengård and LSK were the only sides in this group that made it through.

Twelve of fifteen assumed ‘favourites’ won their ties. Brøndby, of course, could make that thirteen. In the 2019 UWCL, two unfancied sides got through to the last 16. So, again, not much variation.

Just four ties ended on aggregate with a 2-goal margin or less. Last year there were five.

And eleven matches in 32 ended with a 1-goal margin or less, compared with fifteen in 2019.

There’s a (relatively) small pool of world class talent in Europe and it’s stacked within a few wealthy clubs. This is a generational issue and is not likely to be solved in the next couple of years. But there has been a shift in thinking in many countries. The ‘genie’ – as the saying goes – ‘is out of the bottle’ and there are people out there who want to move women’s football to the next level.

We’re seeing the same thing in domestic leagues. In England’s WSL, for instance, reigning champs Chelsea are capable of winning against teams like Bristol City or West Ham United by the same margins that they beat Benfica in the Champions League. This is the imbalance as it exists today.

But it’s surely unthinkable that, in twenty years’ time with a more robust talent pool in more countries, higher attendances and bigger sums of money in the game, that that will continue to be the case in either national or European competition.

International women’s football should provide the blueprint for how the Champions’ League can evolve and and maybe encourage rapid improvements across more federations.

While the best national teams from the 90s and 00s (US, Norway, Germany, Sweden) are still there at the business end of tournaments, more teams have been able to recruit and develop world class talents to step up and give these countries a game – sometimes even winning!

France, Brazil, Australia, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Spain… these nations have found a way to put teams out that make major championships more competitive, less predictable and subsequently more attractive to larger stadium crowds and TV audiences.

This last fortnight has shown that little has significantly altered in European women’s football over the last twelve (COVID-ridden) months. But changing the face of the Women’s Champions League, virus or no virus was never likely to be achieved ‘overnight’, however much some of us might want that.

Keep the faith. While there’s still a long road ahead, we at D2B Towers, along with many other fans of women’s football, are absolutely convinced that standards will improve across the continent and that momentum will continue to build – in turn giving followers of the game a Champions League we can all be genuinely excited about…

Earlier this year, we charted on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link above or our new Links page, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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