The Women’s Super League. Last season both Arsenal and Chelsea struggled in the Champions League group stage, with Chelsea falling short and Arsenal scraping through. This year, Arsenal topped a group which included reigning European champions, Lyon and the Italian title-winners, Juventus. Meanwhile, Chelsea went undefeated and scored 19 goals on their way to winning Group A ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid.
Has the gap closed between English sides and Europe’s elite? Emma Hayes believes so. The Chelsea manager says: “Sometimes we just think: ‘Oh there’s investment into the game in England therefore they’re going to compete,’ without really recognising what experience actually means. Two years ago, when we were in the final, that was the start of [our journey], but we weren’t ready. I think English teams are at a better level to compete because of the demands of our league, the quality of our squad depth.”
Roma’s progression from Group B in second place behind Wolfsburg is no less impressive. Roma sit top of Serie A and are attempting to end Juventus’s five-year dominance of Italian women’s football. However, with Chelsea, Arsenal or Barcelona up next their journey will likely end at the quarter-final stage.
Juventus have been extraordinarily unlucky with the draw in both years the group stage format has operated. Last year they were in a group with the two-time Champions League winners Wolfsburg and the 2021 runners-up Chelsea, and narrowly managed to progress at the latter’s expense. This season draws at home and away to Lyon, the Champions League holders and eight-time winners, and a 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal were was not enough to progress. If Arsenal and Chelsea are a step behind teams with Champions League pedigree such as Lyon, Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich and PSG, then Juventus are another step behind that.
Arsenal can be classified as both winners and losers, because while they qualified for the knockout stage, the loss of Vivianne Miedema to an ACL injury in the team’s 1-0 defeat to Lyon is a big blow. It also highlights a problem blighting Europe’s best teams with Miedema, Beth Mead, Ellie Carpenter, Catarina Macario, Alexia Putellas and Marie-Antoinette Katoto just some of the players missing from the Champions League due to similar injuries.
The absence of Putellas, the back-to-back Ballon d’Or winner, has done little to disrupt Barcelona’s momentum and Aitana Bonmatí has been a huge part of that. Last season she scored four en route to the final, which Barcelona lost 3-1 to Lyon. This year she has already bagged five on top of four assists. Wolfsburg’s Ewa Pajor is the leading goalscorer with seven in six games, with Benfica’s Cloé Lacasse, Bonmati and Sam Kerr all on five. Lacasse also scored twice in qualifying, but it was the Canada forward’s three goals in two games against Rosengård and strikes in defeats to Barcelona and Bayern Munich that lit up Benfica’s campaign.
Barcelona twice broke the attendance record for women’s football last season. Games against Real Madrid and Wolfsburg attracted 91,553 and 91,600 respectively to the Camp Nou in the knockout stage. In the group stage 163,094 fans attended games in total. This season that figure has increased by 62% to 264,267. That has been helped by more clubs hosting Champions League games in their main stadiums and better promotion. Another factor is the excitement of last summer’s Euros driving interest and greater visibility of the competition, with every game broadcast.