Normally, late August would be the start of a new European calendar. But thanks to COVID-19, everyone is still ramping up, and the final matches of 2019-2020 are still getting rounded out. On the women’s side, that means the last stages of the Champions League.
The competition always includes a lengthy pause between the octofinals and quarterfinals, but the coronavirus delay has turned that into an almost comical distance. Now, we had to go from October 2019 to August 2020 for the competition to return. That’s almost ten full months between rounds.
Wolfsburg 9 - 1 Glasgow City
But viewers were rewarded for their patience with some excellent matches, including three decided by just one goal. The one blowout was hardly a surprise. Glasgow City did very well to make it this far, but they are nowhere close to the level of the other seven teams. They never stood a chance against VfL Wolfsburg, as the 9-1 scoreline demonstrates. Still, they managed a screamer of a consolation goal from Lauren Wade, giving them something to celebrate from the encounter.
Looking forward, Wolfsburg remain the strongest challenger to Lyon’s hopes of retaining the title for the fifth straight year. They also have a major advantage over the competition, in that the Frauen Bundesliga was actually able to finish its season. That means Wolfsburg should be a little less rusty than opponents who endured a much longer hiatus. It’s unclear whether they’ll see this easy quarterfinal as a useful tune-up, compared with the stiffer competition everyone else faced to reach the final four. But it’s never a bad thing for your best players to feel in rhythm. And Pernille Harder certainly looked to be in fine form on Friday.
The big question for Wolfsburg is in the defense. They couldn’t even maintain a clean sheet against Glasgow, and it’s hard to see them managing it against Barcelona or one of the French sides. Still, they have an absolutely incredible array of firepower. Harder is arguably the best player in the world, and Ewa Pajor isn’t far behind. Then add in Svenja Huth, Alexandra Popp, Fridolina Rolfö and new addition Pauline Bremer. It’s honestly obscene. The only question is whether they can find the right balance to unleash the attack without leaving themselves entirely exposed in the back.
Barcelona 1 - 0 Atlético Madrid
Wolfsburg’s opponent in the semifinals will be Barcelona, who toughed out a 1-0 victory over Atlético Madrid. As always, Barca were strong in possession but a little toothless when it came to converting that into goals. The main culprit here was Asisat Oshoala—a fantastic player who draws chances her way at the center of the attack, but who is as equally capable of missing sitters as she is of scoring worldies. If they can get a top performance from her, they could score handfuls against Wolfsburg.
Elsewhere, Barca’s big task will be finding their precision. They certainly looked like a team who hadn’t played together in a long time. Lieke Martens looked brighter than we’ve seen her in a while—she possibly needed the break—but almost everyone else looked a touch off the pace. Alexia Putellas had trouble picking out her passes. Jenni Hermoso’s movement was half a step behind play. Caroline Graham Hansen struggled to get much of the ball. For a team that relies so much on clever buildup and insightful passing, they’ll need those players to find a bit more of their form. Otherwise, they may again be reduced to playing wide and hoping to pick out a cross, hardly their preferred approach.
Lyon 2 - 1 Bayern Munich
On the other half of the bracket, Lyon failed to dominate but nevertheless earned a moderately comfortable 2-1 win over Bayern Munich. Despite the wealth of attacking talent, they generated surprisingly little in the attack, managing only three shots on target. The goals were also a little idiosyncratic. The second goal came from an Amel Majri free kick at the top of the box, while Nikita Parris found the net late in the first half by getting her head to a wonderful looping ball that left the Bayern keeper stranded. Both were beautiful in their own way, but neither represented the sort of full spectrum assault that Lyon hope to unleash.
To the extent that Lyon have a weakness, it’s in defense. They are without their best defender, Griedge Mbock Bathy. And they also don’t really have a left back—Majri is a winger often used at fullback, but she has never taken much to defending. Alex Greenwood is a more traditional left back, but...let’s just say there’s a reason Lyon prefers to use a winger instead. But their backup for Mbock is Kadeisha Buchanan—one of the best young defenders in the world. And as long as they can keep their hand on the throttle, Majri’s defensive frailties are more than overwhelmed by her positional dominance.
All of which is to say: This is probably the weakest Lyon team in years. But that just means they’re only favorites, rather than overwhelming favorites.
Paris Saint-Germain 2 - 1 Arsenal
Lyon will face off in the semifinals against Paris Saint-Germain, who knocked out Arsenal 2-1. It’s a match that will contain few surprises—much to the dismay of neutrals who have been subjected to plenty of Lyon-PSG matches in recent years, including the 2017 Champions League final (0-0, went to penalties), the Coupe de France final earlier this month (0-0, went to penalties), the Coupe de France final in 2017 (1-1, went to penalties), as well as plenty of league matches. As you can see, these games are almost always tight, hard-fought affairs. Almost always with Lyon emerging victorious.
But 2019-2020 has pulled the teams much closer. They were actually scheduled to face off on March 14—just barely missing the coronavirus window—in a match that could potentially have ended up as a title decider. So PSG will come in full of belief that this might just be their chance.
They’ll certainly feel empowered by their performance in the quarterfinals. In an alternate universe where Arsenal had a full and fit roster in midseason form, they probably would have been favorites in this match. But Arsenal looked rusty while PSG looked ready to go. As a result, this match was mostly about PSG running circles around Arsenal, who spent most of the game trying to find some defensive structure. The margin was tight in the end, but PSG could easily have been up by two or three by halftime.
Marie-Antoinette Katoto was imperious in front of goal: scoring an outrageous volley off a corner after she bamboozled Leah Williamson to get open, and generally looking unplayable. Kadidiatou Diani gave a classic performance—running rings around her fullback and creating huge openings on the right wing. Grace Geyoro was industrious and precise running play through the middle. They even got another full 90 from Sara Däbritz—back only eight months after she tore her ACL.
Further back, the defense was solid, with Irene Paredes looking as good as she’s ever been and Ashley Lawrence turning in a typically excellent night at right back. They’ve also got the best keeper in the competition in Christiane Endler.
Back in November, the two favorites for this competition were probably Lyon and Wolfsburg, with Lyon a step ahead. That’s still probably true. The likeliest result over the next week is Lyon claiming that fifth straight title by beating Wolfsburg in the final. But neither are anything close to locks in the semifinals, especially over a single 90-minute tie. Things kick off Tuesday at 2 p.m. Eastern with Wolfsburg-Barcelona, while Lyon-PSG are at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Both matches should be excellent, so tune in and enjoy.