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UWCL: Chelsea vs Wolfsburg and the not-quite great rivalry

Why the Harder Derby has left me lukewarm

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VfL Wolfsburg Women’s v FC Chelsea Women’s - Women’s UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg Photo by Oliver Hardt/Getty Images

There was a point in time when it looked like Chelsea would be perpetually stuck in UEFA Women’s Champions League purgatory, getting knocked out by VfL Wolfsburg every season. The trend was finally bucked in their fourth season when they were instead dispatched by Olympique Lyonnais, the round after the French giants had knocked out their familiar German foes.

As soon as the UWCL draw was made, the narrative was set. Although the 22 players that line-up in Budapest tomorrow will bear the familiar Chelsea and Wolfsburg crests upon their shirts, the scales have entirely shifted. There can be no question that this is the weakest Wolfsburg side Hayes’ charges will have faced.

With apologies to Herman Melville

Even though Emma Hayes might see herself as Captain Ahab, looking to finally land her white whale, even she knows that the Wolfsburg team that will be meeting her team is not the same that has inflicted so much heartache.

Whilst Wolfsburg can still be counted in Europe’s elite, it’s clear the squad is not what it was even just 12 months ago. On course to relinquish their Frauen Bundesliga title to FC Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg have struggled to replace the players they’ve lost over the last few windows. Notably, UEFA’s reigning player of the year Pernille Harder who defected to Chelsea but so too world class stars like Caroline Graham Hansen and Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir.

Whereas Chelsea have only strengthened since their first encounter with the She Wolves, adding experience and virtuosity, the Wolfsburg reached its recent peak a couple of seasons ago and has been softly deteriorating since.

Soccer - UEFA Women’s Champions League - Round of 16 - First Leg - Chelsea Ladies v Vfl Wolfsburg Ladies - Wheatsheaf Park Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

The current Wolfsburg squad finds itself split, divided between the old guard who will be hanging up their boots or just leaving for one last hurrah at the end of the season and the younger guns who still have to prove themselves. For the Wolves, this season has been blighted by injuries, but too often they’ve simply looked a shadow of their former selves. Where once there was a domineering juggernaut, now there is uncertainty, Wolfsburg’s relative decline punctuating the wider decline of German dominance in the women’s game.

As Dominque Janssen notes, Wolfsburg needed time to “find each other this season,” in stark contrast to Chelsea who hit the ground mid-gallop. There is nothing but assurance from the Blues; they will make chances and they will score. Fran Kirby’s return to fitness has seen her not just return to form but to surpass so much of what we’ve seen from her before; there is a silky ease to the way she tears around pitches in England. Her blossoming partnership with Sam Kerr has been enough to slam the Matilda’s feet firmly into English soil, after her less than convincing start to life in London. From top to bottom, the team is finally a complete one that defends from the front and attacks from the back.

After years of people heralding Chelsea as the team who might be able to upset Lyon and Wolfsburg’s European duopoly, the Blues can finally begin to justify the perpetual bluster. The investment at the top end of the Women’s Super League, notably from Chelsea and Manchester City has seen the gap between English teams and the European elite diminish. And if it is not this season, it won’t be before long that an English team claim’s Europe’s most coveted crown.

UWCL Quarterfinals
Chelsea vs Wolfsburg, leg 1 of 2
Wednesday, March 24
12 PM ET / 5 PM CET
This game is not being televised in the United States (take it up with the US UWCL rights holder CBS and venue changes due to COVID) but you should be able to stream it on Chelsea’s site
In the UK, watch on BT Sport 2

Watch the livestream on YT