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We just want good football: Champions League musings

Do we really want Lyon vs Wolfsburg every year? Is there another way, a better way?

VfL Wolfsburg v Olympique Lyonnais: UEFA Women’s Champions League Final Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

If the Champions League final was really Lyon vs Wolfsburg in the quarter final - as some would have you believe - what does that mean for the other six teams who made it that far? Wolfsburg might have fallen at the Lyon hurdle but the competition has refused to lose its shine.

Lyon vs Wolfsburg, for a change

It’s January 2017 and there is clear frustration in her voice when she talks about the Champions League draw, her team, VfL Wolfsburg, have been drawn against the reigning champions, Olympique Lyonnais. Wolfsburg and Lyon know each other well, to date they’ve met in five of the seven seasons Wolfsburg have been in the Champions League, contesting three finals along the way, on that day she was looking ahead to their third meeting in the tournament.

Wolfsburg’s first Champions League final win was at the expense of Lyon, in London in 2012-13, their second final against each other went to the French giants after a shoot-out in June 2016. When we talk about the upcoming quarter-finals in 2017, the final the previous year is still fresh. She didn’t want to face Lyon so early, her trepidation well placed as the Germans were ousted by their French rivals, unable to comeback from a two-goal deficit after the first leg in Lower Saxony.

You, again

Unable to be separated after 90 minutes in Kyiv in 2018, it was Lyon who again were crowned champions, powering through the gears in extra-time against a Wolfsburg team who had been reduced to 10. The Germans dead on their feet long before Pernille Harder opened the scoring three minutes into extra time, each of Lyon’s four goals dragging more and more strength from the ailing side.

Bad scheduling, injuries mounting, but a team that just wasn’t good enough on the day.

Kyiv left its mark, then for the second time in three years, the French and German champions we drawn against each other in the last eight. Fans of the four teams on the other side of the draw (Barcelona, Bayern München, LSK and Salvia Praha) licked their lips, someone would be reaching the final for the first time in their history, all four with a shot at glory, the Big Two set to be reduced and potentially met in the final. Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain the test for the winner of OL vs WOB (Lyon vs Chelsea, as it transpired), 90 minutes in Budapest for a Barca or a Bayern (the Blaugrana victorious over 180 minutes), no better chance for glory.

Flights booked to Hungary long before the draw, hotels arranged; the impartials grumbled. Lyon vs Wolfsburg was, theoretically, the pinnacle of the club game in Europe; the final lost some of its shimmer before calendars had even been replaced for the new year.

Another way

Ignoring the relatively pedestrian finals of the last few years, is that really all we want? Just Lyon vs Wolfsburg ad infinitum? What of the others? The champions who have their rightful place in the competition? Those who are ripped and torn asunder in the earlier rounds, unseeded and pitted against a full-time professional side with players pulled in from across the globe, the league of champions polarised.

Well done to Mary Jane for scoring a hat trick against Part Time FC from Brobdingnag, and a big shout out to Jane Mary for keeping a clean sheet against AC Rigel from Roddenville.

A win is a win, but too often the current format leaves the interest checked at the door next to a pile of coats, Chelsea and Bayern putting 11 past SFK 2000 (Bosnia and Herzgovina) and Spartak Subotica (Serbia) respectively in the Round of 32 this season wasn’t compelling. Wolfsburg hitting Atlético Madrid for ten was downright bizarre, yet the 13 unanswered goals Lyon claimed against Ajax in the same round wasn’t engaging, it was humiliating, like the eight that Barcelona put beyond Glasgow City.

Glasgow City v Barcelona - UEFA Women’s Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

There are calls for more French, German and English teams in the last 32, the investment and full-time status arguing the point that teams who finished third and fourth in their respective leagues deserve more than the champions of weaker nations. But when you get out of the top two in most countries, there’s usually a gap. This season in Division 1 Féminine, there are 20 points that separate third (Montpellier HSC) and second (PSG) – however, come the end of last season it was a scant three points between the same two. In the German Frauen-Bundesliga, whilst Wolfsburg and Bayern were neck and neck until 10 days ago, two successive losses for the Bavarians reduced the drop to eight points down to Turbine Potsdam in third. And in England, 14 points separate first and third in WSL, the gaps around the three “big” teams opening and closing all season.

Spain’s Liga Iberdrola one of the better examples of the chasm between the top two and everyone else with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid the two at the top with Levante at a 31 point plummet to third and the Frogs comfortably clear of Athletic Club in fourth.

There is the potential for good news however, as creating more berths for the third (and dare we suggest, fourth) placed finishers could yet open up more competition. In leagues were the top two are a shoe-in, the promise of Champions League football for third best team could have the teams on the fringes of the top invest more. Players might be less likely to jump ship from Potsdam to Wolfsburg or Levante to Atleti if there was European football waiting for them the following season. Overall making the league(s) stronger would help take the edge off of the duopolies across the continent.

The added berths would be well welcome for Chelsea, who failed to find a second goal on Sunday and became Lyon’s latest casualty. Confirmed to finish outside of the top two in WSL, the Blues will sit out the 2019-20 Champions League season. Much like PSG two seasons ago, the Parisiennes made it all the way to the final in Cardiff before losing on sudden-death penalties to Lyon. An up and down domestic season left the Champions League runners-up in third and conspicuously absent from the 2017-18 season’s competition.

The inevitable

This season saw Italian champions Juventus debut in the competition, a full-time outfit that is seen as a leader in Serie A. This season The Old Lady failed to get out of the first round, slipping to a 2-3 loss to a youthful part-time Brøndby team who were then themselves knocked-out by a part-time (but more experienced) LSK side; then the Norwegians were clotheslined by Barcelona last month.

But what can we do? Create a breakaway tournament for full-time teams? Or just wait until more switch to a professional set-up and find a firm footing on the European stage? Allow more German and English teams in? Expand the preliminary group stage? Kick Eastern Europeans out?!

There is no simple fix, no format tweak that will satisfy all, no way of hitting a universal standard across the entire Women’s Champions League, no way of getting anywhere near the parity or spice of the latter rounds of the men’s competition. So, whilst Lyon and Wolfsburg duke it out, locked in perpetual battle – be it in the last eight, four or grand final – all we can hope is the Barcelonas, Chelseas and Bayerns find a meaningful way through, lifting the entire level of the tournament. Although the Catalans have made history this month, becoming the first Spanish team to reach the Champions League/UEFA Women’s Cup final, there is no guarantee they’ll be back in the final next year, or the year after.

For many it’s not about the names involved, the familiar badge and colours but just about good, engaging football, whether it’s Lyon and Wolfsburg or ŽFK Dragon 2014 and Þór/KA.