With rising spectator volumes, improvements in infrastructure, and a significant increase in investment, the landscape of women’s football – both in the UK and on the continent – looks promising.
Emerging from the shadows of chronic underfunding, neglect from local and international governing bodies, and an ignorance regarding the standard of its participant players, the sport has exponentially risen in popularity over the last few years. One only needs to take a fleeting glance at stadium attendances to grasp how far the women’s game has evolved.
Despite these changing dynamics, one thing remains the same; the UEFA Women’s Champions League, which assumes the same status in context of the women’s game as it does the men’s, has recently been dominated by two hugely successful sides – Lyon and Barcelona.
Indeed, at least one of these sides has featured in the Champions League final in each of the last seven seasons, with the last two different teams to contest the competition’s showpiece fixture being FFC Frankfurt (who have now merged with Eintracht Frankfurt) and Paris Saint-Germain, with the Frauen-Bundesliga outfit running out 2-1 winners on German soil in May 2015.
In all seven of these finals, either Lyon (6) or Barcelona (1) have triumphed. In two of those Lyon triumphs, Barcelona were the opponents.
Although we have clumped together Lyon and Barcelona in this context, as the above numbers suggest, it is the French side who have been the outright supreme force. Since the re-branding of Europe’s premier club competition from the ‘UEFA Women’s Cup’ to the current format we witness today (changeover occurred ahead of the 2009/10 campaign), Lyon have lifted the Champions League trophy on a staggering eight occasions – four times more than their nearest competitors, the aforementioned FFC Frankfurt (who have failed to lift the trophy since defeating PSG in Berlin almost eight years ago).
However, could the recent Lyon-Barcelona hegemony be broken this season? The rapid professionalisation of the game has enabled teams to really develop the quality of their output in recent seasons. As a consequence, several sides are now firmly on the coattails of this highly-decorated pair.
With the competition now at the quarter-final stage, we take a quick look at the four sides who have the best chance of thwarting the progress of Lyon and Barcelona, and review the strength of their respective goalkeeping departments.
The Bavarians have reached the competition’s semi-final stage in two of the last four seasons, and became domestic league champions in 2021, preventing serial winners VfL Wolfsburg from claiming a fifth successive title.
Between the sticks is Maria Luis Grohs, an extremely competent young goalkeeper who has accrued plenty of admirers in her inaugural European campaign. The academy graduate has started all six of Bayern’s group games, acquiring two clean sheets, and averaging just under four saves per match. Grohs has also earned plaudits for the way she diligently plays out from the back.
The 21-year-old stopper has also racked up the most shut-outs in the German top-flight so far this season, forming part of a defence with impressive ten clean sheets in 14 appearances, and also conceded fewest goals. With Laura Benkarth and Janina Leitzig picking up Champions League duties last season, Grohs represents a complete change in the club’s goalkeeping department – currently, it seems the decision to throw her the number one jersey has been vindicated.
Quarter-final fixture: Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal (first leg at Allianz Arena, 21/03/23, 17.45pm)
Finalists in the 2020/21 season, Chelsea disappointingly crashed out in the group stages last time around, so will be eager to make amends this term. The West Londoners have attained the Women’s Super League crown in five of the past six seasons, and are currently leading the way once more, but are constantly being kept honest by a very capable chasing pack.
Experienced Chelsea boss Emma Hayes has flitted between two goalkeepers in Europe this season, with Ann-Karin Berger and Zećira Mušović both featuring in three fixtures each; in truth, neither were truly tested during the group stage. The Blues comfortably ruled the roost in a competitive Group A, seeing off the advances of PSG, Real Madrid, and Albanian champions K.F.F. Vllaznia to seal top spot.
Berger, who kept clean sheets in ties with former club PSG and second-time entrants Real Madrid, boasts one of the strongest save percentages in the competition to date, with only a handful of goalkeepers have bettered this output, one of which being teammate Zećira Mušović. Whilst save percentage isn't the best goalkeeper performance indicator, it does portray generally positive performances.
Mušović, a two-time Algarve Cup winner with her native Sweden, has actually blocked every attempt which has come her way – although, given Chelsea’s dominance, was only called upon to make three notable saves. Nevertheless, a record of three clean sheets out of three portrays defensive performances that cannot be scoffed at.
Quarter-final fixture: Lyon vs. Chelsea (first leg at Groupama Stadium, 22/03/23, 17.45pm)
The Parisians will be desperate to achieve a feat that has so far eluded their male counterparts – much to the frustration of the club’s Qatari owners – and earn European football’s most prestigious prize. However, similarly to the club’s men’s team, Paris Saint-Germain Féminine have faltered at the last few hurdles in recent years, most notably finishing runners-up in both the 2014/15 and 2016/17 campaigns.
Nevertheless, the acquisition of vastly experienced goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi could make all the difference this term. The 36-year-old stopper made the switch from Lyon in September, having spent 13 trophy-laden seasons with France’s most-decorated side (Bouhaddi was involved in all eight of Lyon’s UEFA Champions League successes, and also won 19 major domestic honours whilst at the club). With 149 international caps also to her name, Bouhaddi’s knowledge of how to handle big-game moments could prove pivotal.
Quarter-final fixture: Paris Saint-German vs. Wolfsburg (first leg at Parc des Princes, 22/03/23, 20.00pm)
A previous giant of the European theatre, in recent times, Wolfsburg have assumed the role of the 'nearly club', trying desperately to break into Lyon and Barcelona’s exclusive club, but ultimately failing in this endeavour. Admittedly, the Lower Saxony-based outfit have featured in the tournament’s conclusive fixture three times since delivering back-to-back titles at the beginning of the last decade; however, only one of these final appearances have come in the last four seasons.
The returning Merle Frohms has undoubtedly added fresh impetus to Wolfsburg’s continental cause, with Germany’s number one leaving Eintracht Frankfurt to join her former side ahead of the 2022/23 campaign. Frohms, who started the UEFA European Championship final at Wembley in the summer, has performed consistently well in each of her side’s opening six fixtures. On average, she has conceded less than a goal per game so far.
Could Frohms be the missing piece in the Wolfsburg jigsaw?
Quarter-final fixture: Paris Saint-German vs. VfL Wolfsburg (first leg at Parc des Princes, 22/03/23, 20.00pm)
Given their remarkable success rate in reaching UEFA Champions League finals, the jury is well and truly out on whether any of these four sides – or indeed fellow quarter-finalists Arsenal and Roma – can prevent either Lyon or Barcelona from progressing to the tournament’s showpiece event yet again.
However, the accelerated progress of those teams around them, fuelled by a wave of long-awaited investment, lends weight to the belief that two different finalists could line-up at Philips Stadion in June, bucking a seven-season long pattern. If this situation is to materialise, each of these goalkeepers will likely play a key role as their respective clubs navigate their way to Eindhoven.
An upset may well be on the cards.