Three years ago, FC Barcelona and Olympique Lyonnais stepped out onto the pitch in Budapest, Hungary to play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final. Back then, Lyon were the firm favourites, looking to add a seventh Champions League title to their trophy cabinet. Barcelona, who were playing in the final for the first time, were decided underdogs and that’s exactly what unfolded that night at the Groupama Area. The European powerhouse swept aside the newcomers with ease.
Lyon, like Barcelona would do a few years later, got off to a quick start thanks to Dzsenifer Marozsán, who impressed in front of her hometown. After that goal by Marozsán in the fifth minute, Lyon upped the tempo and Barcelona could not match it. Despite the players in their ranks even then, Barcelona were just a step behind, a heart beat slower than the French champions and just could not stop Lyon from exploiting them time and time again.
Ada Hegerberg scored a hat trick to make the victory even sweeter for Lyon, while Asisat Oshoala got a consolation goal for Barcelona on a night that the Catalans have never forgotten. They learned a harsh lesson that day about the levels they needed to achieve to be at the pinnacle and it was a lesson that they readily accepted and proceeded to learn from.
When you look at that version of Barcelona and the version we see today, some of the players may be the same but the level of football has risen considerably for the Blaugranes. The final tomorrow sees Barcelona coming into it as the favourites, albeit slight, as you can never discount Lyon, however being the bookies favourite is something that Barcelona have earned due to their dominance in Spain and in Europe since that night in Budapest. When these two teams face off against each other at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, Italy, we’ll be seeing a team in Barcelona, looking to exact revenge for their defeat and another in Lyon, who are looking to reassert themselves as the premier team in Europe.
Barcelona come into this match after defeating all before them in the group stages (against Arsenal, HB Køge and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim), swiping aside Spanish rivals Real Madrid CF and using a strong first leg performance to see them past VfL Wolfsburg in the semi-final. If you were to look at the scorelines only, you would think that Barcelona were just as dominant in the Champions League as they have been in the Primera Iberdrola, which in some instances they were. However, against HB Køge, in patches against Real Madrid and in the second leg against Wolfsburg, there were defensive frailties that were exposed and more noticeable than ever seen before in this Barcelona side, especially this more recent Barcelona side. Had Wolfsburg especially, been a little more sharper in front of goal, we may be talking about them being in the final instead of Barcelona. That’s how poorly Barcelona played in that second leg
The thing is though, Barcelona have been so good over the last two years that those performances in the lead up to the final feel more like blips than actual problems. There’s a strength in depth in this Barcelona side that should be able to change the game if their defense is badly exposed again against Lyon and they have game-changers in attack that could unsettle any backline in the world. They drastically improved after being humiliated by Lyon in 2019 and will want to show the French outfit just how different this Barcelona team is to the one they faced in Budapest. After back-to-back titles in Spain and a sweeping win against Chelsea in last season’s Champions League final, you can see why one would think that their form against Wolfsburg in Wolfsburg was an anomaly and not a sign of weakness.
Lyon themselves have gone through changes since that final. After being knocked out at the quarter-final stage last year by Paris Saint-Germain and losing the league title to the same team, Lyon let go of manager Jean-Luc Vasseur and brought in Sonia Bompastor to bring them back to glory. Another key change has been the return to form and fitness by Ada Hegerberg who is finding the back of the net with almost as much regularity as she did before she sustained that terrible injury.
In 2019, Hegerberg was surrounded up top by Shanice van de Sanden and Eugénie Le Sommer but in 2022, she has Melvine Malard, Delphine Cascarino and Catarina Macario. Macario in particular, has been a revelation for Lyon this season. Her ability to thread a pass, pop up with goals and also link up with Hegerberg have made her a shining star not just in France but also on the Champions League stage. If Lyon are to add another Champions League trophy to their cabinet, it’ll be through the connection that Hegerberg and Macario have formed.
Unlike Barcelona, Lyon haven’t been as dominant throughout the competition. They have shown moments where their midfield has been outmatched and their backline has committed more errors than anyone affiliated with the club would want to see. They’ve tried to address that by adding Lindsey Horan in January to give their midfield a little more physicality but the inconsistency that plagued them during Vassuer’s tenure hasn’t left and if their attacking prowess hadn’t been as efficient as it has been over the season, they wouldn’t have made this final and be on the brink of retaining the Division 1 Féminine, title again either. They found enough in them to defeat Juventus and PSG in the knock out stages but both ties weren’t as easy as Lyon would’ve liked. They will have to bring their performance up another level if they want to avoid defeat in the final against Barcelona.
We now head into Saturday’s final trying to parse through both teams and figure out where the battle will be won and lost. For Lyon, they will need to stop Barcelona’s midfield from finding its rhythm. Alexia Putellas, Patri Guijarro and Aitana Bonmatí are probably the best midfielders we have in the women’s game right now and where they go, Barcelona follows. If Lyon allow those three to take over the game, they won’t get a sniff of the ball. For Barcelona, the key is stopping Hegerberg and Macario from linking up. Easier said than done because of how prolific both players have been but it has to be done. Mallard and Cascarino are dangerous too but Lyon rely on Hegerberg and Macario’s goal threat when they go forward. Barcelona will need to be much steadier defensively than they showed against Wolfsburg because unlike the German side, Hegerberg will take her chances when they come.
It would be easy to say that this will be a tightly contested affair and for maybe the first 20, 30 or even 45 minutes, it may be that way. After that though? One of these teams will falter and the other will take full advantage of that. Barcelona have allowed manager Jonatan Giráldez to guide them this far and they have produced some scintillating performances against top teams whereas, while not always as impressive as Barcelona, Lyon under Bompastor are once again in the Champions League final.
To be honest, I can’t call this final. Both teams have ways to overcome their own weaknesses and nullify their opponents strengths. When the final whistle blows in Turin, it may honestly come down to who made the least mistakes and who was more clinical in goal. Both teams have a lot to prove out there to themselves and to each other. :yon will want to restore their aura as the best team in Europe while Barcelona will want to stamp their place in Europe’s elite as a long-term probability and not a one-off moment in time. It will be a fascinating match and one we hope will live up to its billing.