When Barcelona took to the pitch at the Groupama Arena three years ago in Budapest for their first Women’s Champions League final, they were the unwelcome team, and no match is expected for Olympique Lyonnais. The narrative is set: a European juggernaut (Leon) was clashing with the new kid on the block (Barcelona) who had to learn from his mistakes. The match is played as if it were following the same scenario.
Lyon star midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán opened the score after just five minutes, delighting fans in the city where she was born, and from there Barcelona began indulging themselves with each subsequent goal. The Catalans weren’t flabby, but Lyon’s meticulous play made them look like amateurs, again and again that evening, Barcelona’s defense wide open.
Later, Luis Cortes, coach at the time, suggested that reaching the final was just a bonus for Barcelona at the end of the Champions League challenge, a comment that seems to help explain Barcelona’s poor performance, the 4-1 loss to Lyon that never felt no doubt.
that was Then. The feeling about Barcelona now couldn’t be more different as they play the Champions League final on Saturday in a completely different location. Seven-times champions Lyon are still a force and not a team worthy of an opponent, but since losing Barcelona in 2019, the Catalan side has worked its way up and disrupted the balance of power in Europe. Each side’s path to the Turin final this weekend was markedly different, but both will feel they have something to prove in securing the European title.
Perhaps the two years since Barcelona humiliate in 2019 have been the most important so far for Blalogranes. Driven by the disappointment of that loss to Lyon, they boosted both on and off the field to finally reclaim the Spanish title in the 2019-20 season after five years without the cup. A back-to-back title ensued as Barcelona really began flexing its muscles, and their rise to the top of the European elite was confirmed with their first Champions League title last season.
Meanwhile, the past two years for Leon, who was very autocratic in Hungary, has seen uncharacteristic fluctuations. Coach Reynald Pedros left after the 2018-2019 season ended, and his replacement Jean-Luc Vasseur lasted less than two seasons despite winning the domestic treble and another Champions League title in his only full campaign with the club. However there was something missing. The league title was awarded after the season ended early due to the pandemic, but the race was not over yet when the French Football Federation announced Not Fenottes Champions.
While Lyon showed his overwhelming dominance as a player a team In Budapest, Ada Hegerberg shone brighter than her teammates – the jewel in Lyon’s crown, and her performance showcased a striker at the top of her game. The match settled with her goals, but even after that, she put the Norwegian in a clinic for 90 minutes and reminded everyone that she is still one of the best teams in the world. When Leon Hegerberg lost to an ACL injury at the start of 2020, no one expected her to be out of the game for 20 months, but her absence was only part of OL’s wobble.
The team was still finding ways to win, but it often seemed disjointed under Vasseur, and even when he was replaced by Sonia Bombastor, it took a while before the darlings of European football started to look like their old selves again recently.
Barcelona’s convincing 4-0 win over Chelsea in last year’s Champions League final cemented their being the new queens of Europe in the minds of those around the sport, but the road to this season’s final has been less resonant and required some careful sailing. Often in this Champions League season, Barcelona have had to count on moments of individual brilliance to help them through tough matches, most notably when they came back from behind to win the first leg in the quarter-final against Real Madrid.
Last time in the competition, away to Wolfsburg, Barcelona put in their worst performance since the final in 2019. The team couldn’t handle the She Wolves press, and the equalizer that should never have been called into question started to get a little uncomfortable in Volks Fagin Arena. Unfortunately, the poor finishing touches for the Wolfsburg team prevented the fans from finishing in the stands.
Defensive errors weren’t limited to just one aspect of the tie, with Lyon still qualifying under Bombastor at the start of the season. The saving grace was Hegerberg’s comeback along with confirmed performances by rising American star Catarina Macario. Having already suffered a group stage loss to Bayern Munich, Lyon suffered their second defeat of the season at the hands of Juventus in the quarter-finals and had to turn the showdown at home the following week. Against Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-finals, the two arch-rivals battled far away against each other, the two 90-minute matches littered with unintentional errors and uncharacteristic errors.
If the Champions League final three years ago was about Lyon’s brilliance versus Barcelona’s naivety, the mistakes they both made in European competition this season go some way into the evening. Despite their good history in the Champions League, for the first time in a very long time, Lyon are not heading into the final as the favorites. Likewise, Barcelona’s poor history against Lyon prevented them from claiming the favourite.
The team that can best possess the ball, and inflict the most damage when presented with chances, will likely win in Saturday’s final. Allowed to run into riots in Budapest with no sign able to approach her, Hegerberg will be looking for another five-star performance to cement her return to her pre-injury best, just as Barcelona star Alexia Butillas is looking forward to the run. offer on her part. To that end, the ability of the Catalan midfield – Botelas, along with Aitana Ponmatti and Patre Guigaro – to keep the ball from Lyon will be key if they are to finally beat the French giants.
Even with two different coaches in the dugout on Saturday, along with a handful of different faces on both teams, Barcelona’s experience since the 2019 final stands out as the biggest team facing off, and unlikely to be decided by the first half. It was. Barcelona and Lyon enter this clash as legitimate rivals, despite their respective struggles along the way.
It wouldn’t be the first Champions League title for both sides – Barcelona have one for seven Lyon – but for Lyon it will prove that they remain the force they have always been, while for Barcelona it will further prove their promotion to the Champions League. Summit since the disappointment three years ago in the long run.