A Champions League skew on what has been happening across Europe during this pandemic
Back at the end of February, I joined Backline Soccer to write a bimonthly column about some of the less-covered stories in European women’s football. As any comic will tell you, timing is everything, and the lack of football across the continent in the last six months rather put the kibosh on this column. (For better or worse, Belarus soldiered on, but most people don’t want two pieces per month on the Белорусская женская премьер-лига.)
Happily, football returned to continental Europe over the summer, and the UEFA Women’s Champions League seems like a good place to start to catch people up. Before Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Olympique Lyonnais, Bayern Munich, Glasgow City, VfL Wolfsburg, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain contest the last rounds of this season's UWCL in a mini-tournament later this month, let's look ahead to how those participating in the 2020-21 season qualified.
Given the range of climates, there’s no standardized season across Europe, so for most Scandinavian, Baltic and British leagues, the coronavirus forced a delay of the up and coming season, rather than a truncation of the one in play. In Champions League terms, this simply means that everyone got to play their season through and knew which teams would be in Europe long before Christmas.
Those leagues/nations are Sweden, Norway, Kazakhstan, Russia, Scotland, Iceland, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, Finland, Republic of Ireland, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland, Latvia, Georgia and debutantes, Gibraltar.
Some leagues that had already started opted to take a break before resuming at a safer time. As most people are already aware, the German Frauen-Bundesliga came back in May, took care of a sizable number of games and is already back into preseason. In Denmark, the top six teams came back in June for the Championship playoffs, and each team played each other once (rather than twice), although they still ended up with the same top two.
After a six-month delay, the Croatian Prva HNLŽ returned in June to get the relegation and championship playoff rounds played. Interestingly enough, at the time of writing, there are two match rounds to be played at the top, and the current champions, Split, are three points better off than former champions Osijek, but the teams will play each other this weekend.
In Albania, a three-month mid-season delay could do little to stop Vllaznia winning their sixth successive title. Likewise Breznica claimed another Montenegrin crown after a two-month hiatus.
Keeping things Balkan, the Bulgarian Women’s Championship (Държавно първенство жени if you want to be pedantic) is the last of the bunch that took a substantial break before resuming, but with a reduced league size. Having already lost Dunav four rounds into the season, both Sportika and Enko Plovdiv refused to participate when the league resumed. Not that the goings on elsewhere in the league affected NSA Sofia, who claimed their sixteenth successive title.
Step up for some contention
Now for the fun of leagues that were wound up with a healthy chunk of their seasons still to be played. France, England and Spain all let the current standings decide the top two. For France and Spain this changed very little as in both countries, the top two were comfortably ahead of the chasing packs. England is a little different in this respect, as the top three teams were close enough that one mistake could have changed who qualified for Europe, or even who won the title, but that’s a whole other rant.
Italy had its own share of contentiousness as both Fiorentina and AC Milan had 35 points (nine adrift of champions Juventus) at the time of the league cessation, with FIGC using a weighted algorithm to award a Champions League berth to Fiorentina. In both the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, the leagues finished without the regular championship playoff rounds, though few could argue about the outcomes.
UWCL veterans FC Zurich will be grateful for Switzerland’s high co-efficient, ensuring that they have at least a chance of automatic qualification to the round of 32 after finishing one point behind Servette Chênois, who'll be making their European debut this year.
The Cypriot, Serbian, Belgian and Israeli leagues all finished without playing or concluding their playoff round, although it’s unlikely Apollon Limassol, Spartak Subotica, Anderlecht or Ramat HaSharon would have been caught.
Round about half a season in, the Austrian, Polish, Romanian, Greek, Slovakian, Welsh, Maltese and Moldovan leagues were nixed, although the likes of St. Pölten, Olimpia Cluj and PAOK are who you’d expect to see in the Champions League. SFK 2000 is a familiar champion from Bosnia, the Sarajevo team having already claimed the title with three matches of the season left.
Despite only having one full match week still to play when the league was cancelled, the Slovenian league could yet have fallen differently with Pomurje six points clear of Olimpija Ljubljana. However the latter had a game in hand, and the final match should have been, of course, a showdown in Ljubljana. The Turkish Kadınlar 1. Futbol Ligi season is another that will go down as a what if? with Beşiktaş one point behind ALG Sport with seven still to play, but it is worth pointing out just how impressive ALG’s rise has been.
In Luxembourg, again about halfway through the season, Racing FC’s three-point advantage over Bettembourg was enough to grant the team a UWCL debut. The story in North Macedonia is a similar one. With 12 match weeks left of the season, Kamenica Sasa lead the Prva ŽFL, three points better off than Tiverija. (For those who can’t quite recall the recent dominant force in women’s domestic football in North Macedonia, it’s Dragon 2014, who were down in sixth with 29 points from 14 matches).
With one match of the Liga e Femrave (that’s right, we’re in Kosovo) season left and the top two teams tied on points, the champion was decided by a one-off playoff between Mitrovica and Feronikeli. Leading the league on goal differential, the reigning champions Mitrovica were victorious after 120 minutes, but the match has had a serious fallout, with Feronikeli withdrawing from the league altogether. (The full statement from Feronikeli makes for interesting reading, if you're up on your Albanian.)
Much like in Kosovo, a decider was needed in Hungary to separate the top two, with Ferencváros and MTK tied on points. Again like in Kosovo, the team with the superior goal difference claimed the honors. Having to go through a couple of tiebreakers, SL Benfica were awarded their first Champions League berth based on head-to-head away goals against second-placed Sporting. Deciders were clearly in vogue this summer, as the Armenian champion was decided in the same manner, with Alashkert running out comfortable winners over Shirak.
Finally, a country not known for its commitment to women’s football (let’s not talk about the spotty nature of the Azerbaijani women's football championship), Azerbaijan has yet to announce a league winner or even if it will put forward a team to compete in the UWCL.