Another UEFA Women’s Champions League matchweek has been and gone, with VfL Wolfsburg the next team to lose their 100% record in the group stage, leaving just Chelsea and Barcelona yet to drop a point. Indeed, it’s Barcelona who are looking like the team to beat this season, their calmness in securing a 3-0 win in what should have been a taxing game against Bayern Munich showcased their ability to dictate any match.
Like an action hero walking away from an explosion without even flinching, there is something so unwaveringly cool and relaxed about how Jonatan Giraldez’s team do their job.
When we look around world women’s football, the word “transitional” is the one I repeatedly favour about so many national teams. But if we focus on the top end of European competition, “transitional” could be used repeatedly in the Champions League. Although, after this week’s games, maybe “wobbly” is a better description.
Having found their rhythm last season under Tommy Stroot — after their own wobbly spell — Wolfsburg have looked good for their lead at the top of the Frauen Bundesliga. Yet, their midweek trip to Italy in the Champions League put an end to their winning ways. Even with the draw, the She Wolves remain unbeaten in 19 games, with this draw the only time they haven’t won since losing to Barcelona last season.
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Against Roma, in their first season in the competition, Wolfsburg were the favourites, even when they went a goal down in the third minute, the odds were not in the favour of the hosts. And yet, after 90 minutes, Wolfsburg had managed an equaliser and nothing more, making for a historic night in Latina [against the other She Wolves.]
In a group that’s become as wobbly as a jelly factory in a time warp, injury-riddled Arsenal could only manage a 1-1 draw against a Juventus side currently going through the toughest time in their [relatively short] domestic history. Indeed, the Bianconere are in need of some fresh blood to revitalise an aging squad that are facing harder and harder questions each week in the increasingly competitive Serie A. The match ended in a draw even though all three points were there for whoever wanted them, ending Arsenal’s 100% run in Europe, mirroring their own sudden domestic stumbles.
Elsewhere, Lyon were given a confidence boost with a 3-0 win against a defensively naive Zurich, which could leave the last few matches in the group a bit of a free-for-all with one misstep enough to swing the entire group.
Moving to Group A — or the “teams flattering to deceive” group — PSG also found their mojo with a confidence-inspiring win over bottom seed Vllaznia, who have now conceded 15 times without a reply. But against teams more equipped to deal with them, PSG still have the look of a team trying to write with a blunted pencil. The return of Sandy Baltimore to the starting XI is something that has given the team more bite, but Gerard Precheur is still labouring to find balance across an attack that for all its quality, is crying out for a natural centre-forward.
So that’s PSG but what of Real Madrid, who lost their first Champions League match [2-0 to Chelsea] this week? Flat. Just, so unbelievably underwhelming. This is a team who started the campaign strongly and had form from last season to build on, but where they should have been taking steps up, moving forward in their development, they’ve stalled.
After the match, head coach Alberto Toril spoke of being happy with how the team played. He wanted to impress that they were still a young group, but his comments bore the mark of media speak: just hot air jetted into an all-too small press room. The team weren’t set up to utilise their better attacking players, and for a team that always looks better going forward, the question was why the balance was so off? Why were Madrid more negative against Chelsea than Barcelona?
In the end, Chelsea’s quality shone through, but it wouldn’t have been so outlandish to think, given how lacking in front of goal the Blues were, that Madrid could have snatched a point. Indeed, against PSG a month ago, the hosts could have taken more than a solitary point, but the football has started to roll backwards and instead of learning from these games as well as the group stage last season, the team seem hell bent on slowly wheeling backwards, undoing so much progress.
Maybe the most frustrating of the 16 teams left in Europe this season, instead of rising to the challenges that greet them, Las Blancas seem more motivated to wave a white flag and say, “Well, we’re only young.”
So finally, we come to the group of those cool action heroes, including the last team to lose a Champions League final: the Blaugrana.
Firstly, it’s key to note that Benfica finally got up and running with a 1-0 win over Rosengard and the Portuguese champions certainly deserved all three points. Despite starting well against Bayern when they clashed last month, a late rally from the visitors saw three points dwindle to one to, in the 98th minute, a figurative punch in the gut with only a 3-2 loss to show for a night’s work. So, even though they sit third in the group, Benfica are yet capable of causing issues even if their 9-0 loss to Barcelona has had them scrambling.
But this isn’t about Benfica, it’s about Barcelona, who have shown that even if they’re without double Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas and inspirational winger Caroline Graham Hansen, they’re tough to try and get the better of.
For Bayern, who have a new coach — hello to another transitional team — and have been getting used to a change in the dugout, they did a fine job in the first half to contain their opposition. Unfortunately, containing Barcelona is like playing whack-a-mole, bonking one on the head isn’t going to stop the next to popping up, nor are they going to slow down just because your arm is getting tired.
So, even though Sarah Zadrazil put in a respectable shift to keep Patri Guijarro quiet, there was still the matter of Keira Walsh and Aitana Bonmatí to smother in midfield, as well as Claudia Pina, Geyse and Ana-Maria Crnogorevic to try and mark in the box. Oh, and don’t forget the impact of Fridolina Rolfo from left-back, the natural attacker created five chances and finished the game with 86% pass accuracy (as per Fotmob,)
The 45 minutes of hard graft put in by the visitors was undone moments into the second half when Crnogorevic knocked down Rolfo’s cross for Geyse to nod in at the back post, the Brazilian attacker left unmarked in the box. For Barcelona, the passing lines were open and Munich were there for the taking. The Bavarians only opening up more as the half wore on, Aitana’s goal on the hour signalling the point of no return. Barcelona were at their best for their third and final goal of the night that highlights why they’re such a hard team to beat.
It was a move that started at the back and everyone bar Lucy Bronze and Crnogorevic were allowed a touch as the ball pinged from one pair of Barca feet to the next, with Munich players hopelessly trying to chase the ball down. Pulled out of shape and expecting more of the same dizzying passes, the visiting backline left to sag as Pina pulled the trigger from 20 yards, guiding the ball through a gentle upward curve and leave goalkeeper Maria Luisa Grohs grasping at air as she was beaten for a third time.
Even when they’re not at their best and missing starters, Barcelona continue to peddle that mesmerising hive-mind football that cannot be stopped. Outplayed, frustrated and crestfallen in the final last season, this team have shown that they did have weak points. But with how they’re playing, with the pain from Torino as a potential fuel to fire them on this term, it’s hard to imagine any team stopping them from lifting the trophy once more.
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