There is no bigger domestic stage than the Champions League final, the competition’s draw enough to lure players from around the world to Europe in hopes of standing on a pitch before kick-off listening to, “The champioooons” blaring over the tanoy. Although the stakes are not quite as high in the women’s game, the UEFA Women’s Champions League final still represents one of the biggest matches in the entire women’s football calendar. However, due to Olympique Lyonnais’ crushing long-term dominance, every other team on the continent had been relegated to runner-up, at best.
It was that very dominance from Lyon that left Barcelona licking their wounds after their final debut in Budapest in 2019, the match all but over in 20 minutes as Ada Hegerberg powered in the third of the evening. Two years later, Barcelona are poised on the brink of a trophy.
A team born anew
In 2019 the Catalans had, once again, come achingly close to regaining their domestic title only to miss out by a handful of points for the fourth consecutive season. In was, in fact one of their most miserable seasons, finishing six points adrift of Atletico Madrid in the league as well as getting knocked out of the Copa de la Reina by the same team and of course, there was the poor showing in Hungary.
Not quite like the proverbial phoenix, there was something renewed about Barcelona the following season. They attacked the league with a new-found vigour, and at the time of the curtailment, had only dropped four points from 21 matches – two draws, zero losses. Their league form was augmented with two additional titles for the campaign: the Copa de la Reina and Supercopa. The lone blot on their season was a 1-0 Champions League semi-final loss to Wolfsburg in their second competitive match after almost six months of nothing during the early months of the pandemic.
Although they could have mathematically been caught, the Blaugranes were awarded the title and, despite Aleti’s chagrin, there was little to dispute; Barcelona were not going to be caught.
Having played 26 league matches so far this season, the Catalans are yet to surrender a point, the team having stepped up yet another level since the end of last season. It would be easy enough to be cynical about their dominance at home, but there is no question that Primera Iberdrola is one of the premier leagues in Europe, one that excites all season. But in this league where anyone can beat anyone else – and indeed, Barcelona have made a habit of dropping points to teams nearer the bottom of the table in their recent history – one team has consistently been unplayable. One team has set the pace, not just for Spain but for all of Europe, if not even further afield, and that pace has been a relentless sprint.
Barcelona’s biggest weakness has been their own lack of belief in Europe. They had already experienced playing Lyon in the UWCL before they squared off in Budapest, yet the team that stepped onto the pitch at the Ferencváros Stadion was timid, poised to make the mistakes that gifted Lyon so much early joy. Despite the sublime form they’ve shown in Spain since that day, that same self-doubt has plagued their tougher European matches.
There is credit that needs to be given to the Wolfsburgs, PSGs and Manchester Cities as they are never going to show up with anything other than a desire to win and will not be making things easy for their opposition. But it is Barcelona who play into their hands, who look less than confident on the ball, who fail to make simple passes that they could regularly with their eyes closed. It is Barcelona who make their matches uncomfortable for themselves, to invite pressure from their opposition and it what will be the biggest match of their career, that is exactly what would lead to their undoing, Chelsea not likely to need any more encouragement.
So for a team that has given nothing but class and style to football for two years, tomorrow will represent the biggest test, not for their football, but their resolve, for their confidence, and ability to stay calm and let their football do the talking. For a team so well known for playing with their feet, the match will come down to what they do with their heads.