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The Week in Women's Football: Review of historic Champions League group stage matches

This week we look at the historic first Round of 16 group stage matches of the 2021-22 UEFA Women's Champions League.

Note: Next week we will devote our column to discussing the NWSL/Paul Riley/Lisa Beard/Washington Spirit/etc. player harassment (and worse) situation, which should drive some drastic changes in the league but has resulted in games being postponed, the league's Commissioner and Legal Counsel leaving, Paul Riley listing his $2 Million house on Long Island for sale, among other happenings, and I present my thoughts on what is next.

UEFA Women's Champions' League Group Stage Debut

October 6-7 saw the first ever group stage matches in the Women's Champions League for 2021-22, with eight matches across the two groups. The new format will see more monetary payouts to the clubs, with each Round of 16 participant guaranteed about $450,000; previously they received less than $90,000 at the former Round of 16 legs. The Champion will receive a hefty $1.6 Million.

Group A

On October 6 in Group A, Servette hosted Juventus, who the Swiss side lost to away in preseason (4-1); in the WCL, Servette fell 3-0 to the Italian Champions, though they had some good chances and their Portuguese international goalkeeper Ines Pereira saved a penalty kick from Juve's Czech Republic import Andrea Staskova in the 27th minute and also snuffed out a short range attempt from her late in the game, with Pereira playing well throughout the game. Juventus' goals came from Italian international midfielder Arianna Caruso, Swedish international Lina Hurtig and Italian international midfielder Valentina Cernoia (who has won four consecutive league titles at Juve and two previous crowns with Brescia), the latter scoring after immediately subbing into the match. Caruso's goal and arguably Hurtig's seemed to be offside to this reporter, but were allowed to stand. The Geneva side was resolute in defense against Juventus, as the Italian side led in shots (22 vs. 7), shots on goal (10 vs. 2), corners (12 vs. 4) and possession (58% vs. 42%). It doesn't get any easier for Servette in this group as they also face last year's WCL runners-up Chelsea and 2012-13 and 2013-14 European champions Wolfsburg (who were runners-up to Lyon on three other occasions).

Speaking of those other two sides, Chelsea tied Wolfsburg in a 6 goal thriller which ended 3-3, with the London side fighting back from a 3-1 deficit in the 48th minute as German international Tabea Wassmuth scored a brace in her first season with Wolfsburg after years at Hoffenheim, while former Wolfsburg and Danish forward Pernille Harder scored Chelsea's third goal two minutes into second half injury time. The tie will put more pressure on the return match in Germany, with the top two teams from each group moving onto the Quarterfinal Stage next March, after the knock-out draw in December when all six Group match days are completed.

Group B

In Group B matches held on October 6, two underdogs were at home against two teams that are heavily favored to be in the running for the semifinals. Zhytlobud-1 of Ukraine (which has never made it to the WCL final 16 in their history) hosted Real Madrid, with 20-year-old Lorena Navarro scoring the only goal just past the half hour mark to give the Spanish side an important win. Navarro has been capped by Spain at the U-19 and U-17 levels and won the UEFA-U-17 title with her country in 2014-15, and was a continental tournament runner-up on two other occasions.

In the other match, Breidablik of Iceland was home to Paris St. Germain of France, with PSG leaving the far Northern country after a 2-0 win from goals by French international Lea Kelifi (22) in the 17th minute and Onema Geyoro (24) one minute from time in the second half. PSG's Czech Republic international goalkeeper Barbora Votikova (25) told after the game, "We couldn't create many scoring chances so we are actually pretty happy with scoring twice and getting the three points." Both teams had a similar number of shot attempts, with 18 for PSG and 14 for Breidablik, though the French side had three times as many shots on target (9 vs. 3) and a sizeable lead for time of possession (67% vs. 33%), but the Icelandic side led in corner kicks (4 vs. 1).

Group C

In Group C on October 5, debutants Hoffenheim of Germany hosted fellow WCL debutants Koge of Denmark and kept their surprising European undefeated run going with a 5-0 win; Hoffenheim scored four goals in the second half from Austrian international forward Nicole Billa, Swiss international defender Luana Buhler and two by Belgium international Tine De Caigny, who also had a brace against Albania last week in WWC qualifiers. Austrian international defender Katharina Naschenweng scored the ultimate winning goal in the 18th minute. Hoffenheim had previously defeated Valur of Iceland 1-0 and Milan from Italy 2-0 in the Preliminary Rounds and then dispatched Rosengard 3-0 away while sharing the points with the Swedish team 3-3 in the return to make the round of 16.

In the other Group C match, 2020-21 Women's Champions League Winners Barcelona hosted Arsenal of England, who are the two overwhelming favorites in this group. Barca won 4-1 with Asisat Oshoala of Nigeria scoring once and creating another; Oshoala was a danger in attack all game. Spanish internationals Mariona Caldentey, Alexia Putellas and Dutch international Lieke Martens scored the other goals (while Putellas had a late penalty kick saved by Austrian international goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger). Norwegian international forward Frida Maanum (in her first year at the WSL club after 5 seasons in Sweden at Linkoping) had a late consultation goal for the Gunners off of a Tobin Heath (U.S. international) pass. The game was a bit of a reality check for Arsenal, who have had such a vibrant start to their WSL season with wins over top challengers Chelsea and Man City (and sit joint top of the table on 12 points from four games with surprising London rivals Tottenham) who also made the WCL this season, though Man City did not make the Group Stage, having lost 2-1 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the Second Round. Barca had two-thirds of the possession (65%) and had 37 total goal attempts to only 6 for Arsenal (14 vs. 2 on target). Barca is playing at a different level right now and is joint top of the Spanish league with Real Sociedad on 15 points from 5 games.

Group D

In Group D on October 5, Hacken of Gothenburg, Sweden fell at home 3-0 to Olympique Lyon of France. French international Melvine Malard (21) scored early in the 10th minute to take a 1-0 advantage into the halftime break. American international Catarina Macario (22) scored and then an own goal from Danish international Stine Larsen (25) within the first 8 minutes of the second half wrapped up the game

After the game, a friend and Swedish women's football media member talked to a number of players, including Dutch international midfielder Danielle van de Donk, who played in the city with Kopparbergs in 2015, though she never played in the six-year-old Bravida Arena in the Hisingen district of the city, "To be fair I have not played in this stadium. It was nice to see the city a little bit again; it's familiar and to see some players I have played with….The best feeling is to win—that is always the best feeling." Van de Donk talked about the impact of new Lyon coach Sonia Bompastor, a former international and midfielder with the club, "She is very structured and very good. We have our roles and need to fulfill them and if you don't, you know the consequence of it. She brings a lot of energy and joy to the team." When asked about comparing the level of play in Sweden and particularly from what she saw from Hacken to leagues in other countries in Europe, she said, "There is a difference—England has one of the best leagues and in France, I have yet to discover, having not played in that many games [just four league matches this season]. There is a difference; Lyon, they are up there and want to stay up there."

Her teammate, Australian international defender Ellie Carpenter, who explained that she had chatted briefly with her national team coach Tony Gustavsson's—who is a native of Sweden and has been living there during the COVID pandemic and attended the game—said, "It was important for us to get three points here away in Sweden. It was a solid performance and we could have scored a lot more goals." When asked about Sweden being the fifth ranked league in Europe and Hacken's level of play, she was very complimentary of the opponents as well as the crowd: "Hacken was very strong and they had some first half opportunities. [They are] a top team and can contest with any team in Europe. 4,000 [fans], it was nice to have a crowd—it was a really good atmosphere and [they] came out in the rain." Note: Last Spring in Barcelona's 4-0 defeat of Chelsea in the Women's Champions League Final in Gothenburg, only about 30 people were allowed to attend, with just a handful of media credentialed, because of the COVID pandemic.

Lyon coach Sonia Bompastor talked about a big moment in the game when Norwegian international Ada Hegerberg replaced Macario for the last 11 minutes, after coming back from an injury that has kept her out of the game for over a year and one-half, explaining that there were, "A lot of emotions for her. She was very happy to come in. She has had a very hard time [on the injury recovery process]. To come in, enjoy and have some sensations on the game was great and we are very happy to have her back."

Hacken coach Mats Gren said about the match, "We made a good first 35 minutes and a few chances but we are playing against a very good team. The first goal surrendered was not necessary [off of a turnover deep in their end]. It was a little bit [of a] pity that they can score so early and they get more self-confidence….In the second half, we wanted to be lower, more compact to the middle; the third [Lyon goal] was a set piece—normally we don't give them away." He said that to draw positives from the game, of which Hacken forward Stina Blackstinius—who won an Olympic Silver Medal with Sweden this summer—was one them from this writer's perspective with her attacking guile and nose for goal, Gren said, "We are playing one of EURO's best teams; they have a lot of speed, good combination and go quickly in every dual. Some of the things we did [well] in the first half, we can take with us into the next games."

Benfica of Portugal faced off at home against the third Germany team in the group stage—Bayern Munich—and held the German super club to a 0-0 draw. Benfica's Canadian forward Cloe Lacasse (28)—who was called into the full national team camp for four friendlies this past April and June but has yet to play for her country—told "This is what we want to be, to compete with teams like Bayern. We want to make a statement, we want to be different and we showed that we are here to win, not just be here with the big dogs, we are here to compete and to win games. We had some good moves, we just need to capitalise on those chances." Lacasse also talked about the support from home fans, as many countries open their sporting venues to supporters, "For me the fans tonight were like an extra player for us. Against tough teams like these, we need their support; we had a fantastic crowd here and I hope they keep coming and encouraging us in the Champions League and also in the league." Benfica currently sits in third in the eight team Sul (South) division of the top league on 6 points after 3 games, one point behind Lisbon rival Sporting and surprising Torreense.

Letícia, Benfica's Brazilian international goalkeeper—in her first season in Europe after five seasons with Corinthians in Sao Paulo and who has won the Copa America Femenina with her national side (2018) and the CONMEBOL Libertadores Femenina with her club in 2019—talked to about the match in which she was outstanding: "We were giants tonight. We prepared very well for the game and gave our best. We left the pitch happy for what we did. I was prepared for the game. I told my team-mates that they can rely on me behind them to defend our team."

Twenty-four year old midfielder and captain Pauleta (Paula Dominguez Encinas) of Spain, who has played with the Lisbon giants since 2018, told "I think this draw gives us more confidence as it's one of our first experiences in the Champions League, so with this result we'll believe more in ourselves and starting games knowing that we can compete with the best is good for us. The women's game needs this [revamped WUCL]; we had a great atmosphere created by our fans and it will stay in our memory." The game was quite even and exciting, though Bayern Munich had the balance of play with a 2-1 advantage in possession (65% vs 35%), with 16 attempts on goal to 7 for Benfica (5 vs. 2 for shots on frame).

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get yours copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

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