Champions Ready

When it comes to the women’s UEFA Champions League the word that seems to be on the minds of everyone within the game is growth. After a fantastic 2021-2022 campaign which saw attendance numbers shattered (including 91,000 for the Quarterfinal match between Real Madrid-FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou) and television rating records broken UEFA’s focus now more than ever seems to be solely on growing their now very popular tournament. This summer’s European Championship only seems to have further emboldened the region’s governing body.

It also doesn’t hurt that the structure of the Champions League, now mirroring the men’s with a group stage and a knockout stage, has created some excellent matches and fierce rivalries. The one constant during all of this change though has been Lyon. The defending champions come into this year’s tournament once again as the favorites, having won Europe’s top club competition a record eight times and six of the last seven finals. Manager Sonia Bompastor’s side is once again anchored by trusted veterans Wendi Renard, Selma Bacha, Amandine Henry, and goalkeeper Christiane Engler. But keep an eye on Catarina Macario, the 22 year old midfielder/forward American international. The Stanford University alum has developed a strong partnership with Ada Hegerberg up top and is poised for a breakout season this year.

While Lyon still seems to be the favorite, the gap is narrowing. Barcelona thought that the gap had been closed after an incredible run in 2020-2021 to earn their first title. But they fell just short in the finals, despite the incredible efforts from their talismanic midfielder Alexia Putellas. Barca made some strong moves in the offseason to help bolster their lineup, including adding former UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Lucy Bronze and Brazilian international Geyse. But Putellas’ ACL injury while on international duty with Spain has definitely put a dent in their European ambitions. To retake top honors they will need a strong campaign from veterans like defenders Patricia Guijarro and Marta Torrejon.

Barcelona aren’t the only side looking towards knocking Lyon off of their throne. Of course, those familiar with English women’s football know that Chelsea supporters are both desperate to finally capture Champions League honors. The London side has come extremely close in recent years to finally breaking the curse only to fall just short. For Chelsea, forward Sam Kerr has to find the back of the net for their ambitions to be realized. The Australian international scored just four goals in European play last season. Having a healthy Fran Kirby to play alongside her will certainly help.

Perhaps the biggest dark horse of the competition is VFL Wolfsburg. The defending Bundesliga champions took the tournament by storm last year thanks to the exceptional play of forward Tabea Wamuth. Her 13 goals were second only to Putellas in last year’s Golden Boot race. Given her strong form with Germany this summer, it is safe to expect that she will have an exceptional club season as well. Midfielder Jill Roord has also stepped up for the Die Wölfinnen making them a strong contender for this year’s crown.

Outside of the automatic qualifiers, the talent is still very strong. Manchester City and Arsenal were just a hair away from defeating Chelsea in the Women’s Super League last season in England and have been razor thin close winning the Champions League. Paris St. Germain have also been close to the top of the mountain, making it to the final twice before losing both times to Lyon. Real Madrid finally seem to be taking a page out of Barcelona’s playbook and investing in their women’s side. But they  still seem to be a few years away from making a real dent in the competition. The same could be said for Bayern Munich, although they gave Chelsea a real scare in last year’s semifinal and made a strong pickup in the offseason by signing England international/ former Manchester City forward Georgia Stanway.

The Wannabees

If there is a dark horse in this year’s competition it would have to be Juventus. Le Bianconere made it to the Quarterfinals in 2021-2022 and dominated Serie A last season. Defender Sara Gama leads a very experienced side into this year’s competition and depending upon their seeding may make another run into the knockout stage.

The strength and the diversity of the team’s competing for the top prize will only make the UEFA Women’s Champions League better. With major football organizations starting to take notice of the positive play and fan support that the women’s game has, 2022-2023 may be a pivotal year in the development of the game in Europe.

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