Every year, on the eve of the Champions League, there is really only one question to be asked: will any club have done enough to challenge Lyon, who have won the past five titles?
In recent seasons the answer has been a resounding no. The French club have not lost in the competition since April 2017, when they suffered a 1-0 home defeat by Manchester City. It didn’t matter. They had settled the tie with a 3-1 away win.
Since then their unbeaten run has stuttered twice, with draws against Manchester City in April 2018 and Chelsea in 2019. On both occasions they had done enough in the preceding legs to progress.
The strength of the Women’s Super League, fast developing into the most competitive league in the world, is both a boon and a burden to English teams attempting to unseat the holders.
On the one hand, English teams are stronger than ever. This season’s contenders, Manchester City and Chelsea, are not homes to a few world-class players but have squads dripping with talent. City have added the World Cup winners Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle, the dynamic England winger Chloe Kelly and, from Lyon, the 2019 European player of the year Lucy Bronze and the left-back Alex Greenwood. Chelsea, who signed the Australia striker Sam Kerr in January after a lengthy pursuit, have added the one player to have perhaps marginally ruffled Lyon’s feathers in recent years, the former Wolfsburg forward Pernille Harder.
Harder scored nine goals to help power Wolfsburg into last August’s final, and scored first in added time in the 2018 final before the German side collapsed to a 4-1 defeat.
However, although the WSL is strengthening as the top clubs invest, English teams still sit below Europe’s elite when it comes to spending. Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, said before her team’s last-32 first leg at Benfica on Wednesday that the finances available to clubs such as Lyon, Wolfsburg, Paris St-Germain and Barcelona were “probably double that of English clubs” (with the gap to Lyon even starker).
“That’s the case,” Hayes said. “I’m not saying I don’t have quality in our ranks but you can’t just acquire one or two players to be at that level and I think depth is the key to it. Look at Lyon last year, they played what they would say is their third-choice No 9 in the final. Nobody has that resource.”
Hayes and her City counterpart Gareth Taylor (and his predecessor Nick Cushing), have had to play the long game, building their squads bit by bit, though this year’s bigger outlay will increasingly become the norm should it reap dividends in Europe.
The competitiveness of the WSL also means it is impossible for English teams to focus solely on the Champions League in the buildup to the games. To an extent Lyon can do just that. The French champions, who suffered their first domestic defeat in four years last month, play the Italian champions Juventus in the last 32. They cruised to a 3-1 win over Le Havre on Saturday and play Issy and Reims either side of their Champions League home leg. Those three teams have 21 points in the league combined; Lyon have 27.
Manchester City eased past Everton 3-0 on Sunday but have a testing clash with Arsenal after their game at Göteborg on Wednesday, and play an increasingly hardy Birmingham City after the home leg.
Chelsea have a kinder run, with Brighton and then Tottenham either side of their home leg against the Champions League debutants Benfica. At this stage, these calendar nuances are fairly insignificant, but as the tougher teams start to meet in the latter rounds, playing in a weaker domestic league can create a sizeable advantage.
On Wednesday we get the first look at how these bolstered squads handle a heavy schedule. No English team have reached a final since Arsenal won the competition, completing a historic quadruple, in 2006. Be it this season or next, the WSL appears to be increasingly primed for a new era of competitiveness in Europe. The addition from next term of a group stage and the possibility of three English teams qualifying will aid that quest. Can they topple Lyon this year? That is probably still a step too far.