Competition Focus

What did we learn from the UEFA Champions League? – Equalizer Soccer

Barcelona's Alexia Putellas lifts the Champions League trophy as confetti falls around her.

Barcelona earned back-to-back titles on Saturday, while Olympique Lyonnais returned to the drawing board, in a final that will live long in the memory.

Equalizer Soccer asks what the key takeaways from this UEFA Champions League campaign are, and looks ahead to what to watch out for next season.

Budding rivalries

This was the third Champions League final Barcelona and Lyon contested, and it turned out to be by far the tightest. Until Aitana Bonmati’s deflected shot got the breakthrough after the hour mark, the match had been very even, and dominated by defensive efforts. Compared to the 4-0 and 3-0 half-time score lines from 2019 and 2022, where Lyon made it look easy, this final had real tension.

That Barcelona finally broke their Lyon duck (the French club had led their head-to-head 4-0 going into the final) was a great thing for the women’s game as a whole. Across sport, rivalries are what fuel intrigue, and you cannot have a rivalry unless there is real jeopardy. This final went a long way to evening out the dynamic between the top two teams in Europe. This result is sure to shape future narratives and interest, in the same way as Lyon battling it out with Wolfsburg in the 2010s did.

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Lyon fully intend to come back swinging

A video clip of new Lyon owner Michele Kang chatting away to Barcelona’s Alexia Putellas at the trophy ceremony got some traction online. If not for Putellas having already penned her new deal with Barcelona – and her having scored the winning goal for her hometown club on Saturday night – there might have been chatter about Kang trying to entice her to come to France. One can only imagine what words were being shared, but considering Kang’s ambitious and growing women’s football empire, she might have been asking Putellas just what Barcelona’s secret is.

Lindsey Horan told reporters after the match that Kang has big plans for Lyon’s future. Since 2022, Kang has bought three women’s soccer clubs across the United States, England and France, all with the aim of providing them with more resources. According to Horan, that includes more investment in facilities to match Lyon’s glowing history and the star power the club has on the pitch. Barcelona’s concerted women’s football project over the past half a decade has reaped clear results, and Kang no doubt wants to work out a similar formula to help Lyon keep up. It will be fascinating to see it play out.

Competitive knock-out stages

Sure, Barcelona won, and Lyon reached the final. There were no real surprises there. But, year after year, there are signs that things are getting more competitive across the Champions League.

Just as the final was more spicy than it has been in recent years, so too were there more testy moments for top teams in earlier rounds than usual. Eventual champions Barcelona were held to an 4-4 draw in January by Benfica, and only just crept past Norwegian outfit SK Brann in the first leg of their quarterfinal. Lyon had to score a comeback 2-1 win in the first instalment of their last-eight encounter with Benfica too.

These smaller teams cannot compete with the top dogs in terms of facilities, salaries or investment. Not yet. But they are occasionally challenging on the pitch, and the hope is that with the development of the game more widely, that will become the norm over time. It would be welcomed, especially in the early stages of this competition which can sometimes feel stale as, for the most part, bigger clubs breeze through.

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Change is afoot for the top teams

Three out of four semi-finalists will have new managers in charge next season. Sonia Bompastor will switch Lyon for west London, when she replaces Emma Hayes at Chelsea – a decision that is expected to be announced this week.

Hayes is already getting her feet under the table in the US women’s national team job. Meanwhile, Jonatan Giraldez ended his Barcelona career on the greatest quadruple high before departing to the Washington Spirit.

So what of the teams and players that remain?

At Chelsea, the feel of the team will no doubt morph and change without Hayes, their manager of 12 years, at the helm. Former club stalwarts like Fran Kirby and Ann-Katrin Berger have left, and Sam Kerr still has a way to go in her ACL recovery. In the meantime, this might give striker Mayra Ramirez time to really get comfortable after her strong end to this season.

At Barcelona there is more stability, with the core of the squad expected to remain, buoyed by Putellas agreeing a new contract in the last week. But there is still uncertainty around five-time European champion Lucy Bronze’s signature, after her stellar performance in the final, and no managerial replacement yet appointed.

At Lyon, Champions League record goal-scorer Ada Hegerberg recently signed a contract extension through to 2027, while captain Wendie Renard is also in it for the long haul until 2026. As for their new manager, Spanish media reports are linking Pedro Martinez Losa – current Scotland boss and formerly of Arsenal – to the job.

Records broken

The 50,827 people who filled the San Mames stadium in Bilbao on Saturday made this occasion one to remember. It marked the biggest crowd the European cup final had ever attracted. What struck me, as a reporter sat in the stands, was how normal those kinds of numbers are beginning to become in women’s football. We have seen them across England in club football this season.

UEFA helpfully posted an image to X comparing the crowds in Bilbao to the 2014 final, where a sparsely filled stadium of 11,217 saw Wolfsburg lift the title in Lisbon. It was a selective choice though.

The previous attendance record of 50,212 had been set in Munich in 2012. Subsequent years saw UEFA select host stadiums with far smaller capacity.

This 12-year gap to return to 50,000+ crowds should serve as a reminder that, for all the progress in women’s football of the past few seasons, bigger and better futures are never guaranteed. Ambition and investment from decision-makers needs to match the appetite for the game. Long may this surge and momentum continue.

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