The Women’s Champions League officially moves into a new era next season with the overdue introduction of a group stage, but this year’s final in Gothenburg on Sunday between Chelsea and Barcelona already marks a significant turning point.
After winning the competition in each of the last five years, and seven times in the last decade, Lyon are conspicuous by their absence.
There has been a French or German Champions League winner in each of the 13 years, since Arsenal lifted the trophy in 2007, but this time will be different.
Lyon lost in the quarter-finals to Paris Saint-Germain, themselves beaten in the last four by Barcelona, the Spanish champions.
German hopes ended when Bayern Munich lost in the semi-finals to Chelsea, who have since gone on to win the English Women’s Super League (WSL) and are eyeing European glory to go with it.
“It’s our time. There’s so many players in that dressing room that can win the football match for us. We’ve seen it in recent weeks, the amount of players that have popped up all over the pitch to determine the outcome,” Chelsea boss Emma Hayes said before the squad jetted out to Sweden on Friday.
“I think my message will be we’ve demonstrated we’re the best team in England…now to become the best team in Europe you have to show another side again.”
Whatever happens on Sunday behind closed doors at the Gamla Ullevi, Chelsea and Barcelona will both be in the new 16-team Champions League group stage next season.
An expanded competition is finally catching up with the men’s version, with more clubs from the leading countries playing more games, and greater financial rewards as a result.
UEFA says that, from next season, the total Champions League pot will be 24 million euros ($29.1m), over four times greater than the current figure.
There has been a feeling for some time that the increased investment in the women’s game by many of the leading men’s sides around Europe, in particular in England, could lead to a shift in the centre of power.
Chelsea came into this season after completing the world-record signing of Denmark forward Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg, who they duly defeated in the quarter-finals.
Harder, the reigning UEFA women’s player of the year, has joined an all-star attack featuring Australia’s Sam Kerr as well as Bethany England and Fran Kirby, who on Friday was named women’s footballer of the year by England’s Football Writers’ Association.
The backing of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich has thrust Chelsea to the forefront of the women’s game in England and allowed them to play in Europe’s showpiece game, two weeks before their male counterparts meet Manchester City in their equivalent.
City and Chelsea now threaten to dominate the WSL, a competition buoyed by the recent announcement of a three-year broadcast deal worth £7 million ($9.9m) per year.
The English dominance of the Women’s Champions League might have to wait, however, at least if Barcelona have their way.
The Catalans only created a professional women’s team in 2015 but, six years later, they are the all-conquering force in Spain.
They were crowned domestic champions last weekend after winning 26 out of 26 games, scoring 128 goals and conceding only five.
Their star player is the Netherlands’ Lieke Martens, while others like Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala and Norwegian Caroline Graham Hansen have also added elite, international quality.
Along with top scorer Jenni Hermoso, and with the support of a cast of homegrown players, Barcelona feel they are primed to do better than in their last Champions League final appearance two years ago, when they were blown away by Lyon, 4-0.
“This is the most important game we’ve had because we don’t know if it will come around again,” captain Alexia Putellas told Marca.
“It is the perfect moment for us to go out and win the Champions League.”
2010-11: Lyon (FRA)
2011-12: Lyon (FRA)
2012-13: Wolfsburg (GER)
2013-14: Wolfsburg (GER)
2014-15: Frankfurt (GER)
2015-16: Lyon (FRA)
2016-17: Lyon (FRA)
2017-18: Lyon (FRA)
2018-19: Lyon (FRA)
2019-20: Lyon (FRA)