The curtain went up on the 15th edition of the UEFA Women’s Champions League in August 2015, when 32 teams started the ball rolling in eight mini-tournaments. They represented the broad base in a community of 56 entrants – a notable increase on the 33 contestants involved when the competition was born as the UEFA Women’s Cup in 2001/02.
The 48 matches played in the opening phase of the sixth edition contested under the UEFA Women’s Champions League banner produced 235 goals at an entertaining average of 4.9 per game.
Among the eight group winners who progressed to the knockout rounds were Arjan Veurink’s FC Twente – and the Dutch contestants went on to write a small but significant piece of competition history by becoming the first side to halt a German club at the first hurdle. FC Bayern München had survived the 22 matches of the 2014/15 Bundesliga unbeaten and seemed on course for success in the round of 32 after a 1-1 draw in Enschede. However, a return leg marked by two penalties and an own goal culminated in a 2-2 scoreline which – despite their 40 goal attempts and 20 corners over the two matches – brought elimination on the away-goals rule for the German champions.
Another eyebrow-raising display came from newcomers Club Atlético de Madrid who, after a 2-0 home defeat by Zorky, bounced back with a 3-0 win in Russia. However, whereas they had 62 goal attempts against Zorky, Miguel Ángel Sopuerta’s team managed only six in two games against Olympique Lyonnais and suffered a 9-1 aggregate humbling.
SK Slavia Praha offered an impressive statement of intent by felling the 2014/15 semi-finalists Brøndby IF in their round of 32 tie. Anton Mišovec’s side ran up a 4-1 advantage in Prague and restricted the Danes to a 1-0 win in the return. They then continued their giant-killing against the 2009 finalists FC Zvezda 2005, winning 2-1 in Prague and earning a goalless draw back in Perm, where both teams hit the woodwork. Like Atlético, though, they found their nemesis in Lyon, who punished them 9-1 in the quarter-finals, bringing an emphatic end to their creditable run.
Twente’s own giant-killing run lasted only one round before they succumbed to FC Barcelona, the Spanish side winning both legs 1-0. Elsewhere, there was a taste of things to come for two of the more fancied sides. Reigning champions 1. FFC Frankfurt, during a season when Colin Bell handed the coaching reins to Matt Ross, seemed assured of a comfortable passage after beating LSK Kvinner 2-0. However, the Norwegians achieved an identical result in Frankfurt before the home team squeezed through 5-4 on penalties. Paris Saint-Germain endured their own difficulties against KIF Örebro. After a 1-1 draw in Sweden, they failed to find a way past defiant goalkeeper Carola Söberg in the second leg and despite dominating the tie 59-3 in goal attempts, they advanced only on the away-goals rule.
This lack of firepower accompanied Farid Benstiti’s team into the quarter-finals. Against Barcelona, they ticked boxes in terms of athleticism, technique, combination play, tactical maturity, transitions and rich variations in attack but, against a well-organised, determined opponent operating a compact 1-4-3-3, it was not until the 86th minute of the return leg that Cristiane delivered the tie’s only goal.
After their shoot-out scare again LSK, meanwhile, Frankfurt suffered similar frustrations against FC Rosengård. In Sweden, they encountered a hard-working opponent with the defensive discipline and speed in attack-to-defence transitions to deny the defending champions goal chances. Jack Majgaard Jensen’s team, despite the best efforts of their wide midfielders, found themselves reduced to trying their luck from long range and Dzenifer Marozsán’s penalty won the match eventually for Frankfurt.
Another tight contest followed back in Germany, where Rosengård’s 1-4-4-2 set-up helped stifle the home team. With Frankfurt failing to score at home once more, Rosengård won 1-0 on the night only for the hosts to progress – for the second round running – by the slim margin of a 5-4 shoot-out win.
The other two quarter-finals proved more straightforward affairs. ACF Brescia Calcio Femminile had conceded only once en route to the quarter-finals but their short-passing combination game was undermined by the high defending and aggressive pressing of the home side in Wolfsburg. By the time coach Milena Bertolini switched from a 1-3-5-2 formation to 1-4-3-3, Ralf Kellermann’s VfL Wolfsburg were already 3-0 ahead. Come the second leg, Brescia started again with three at the back before opting to mirror the visitors’ 1-4-4-2 after the break, yet despite matching the Germans for on-target attempts (five apiece), Wolfsburg’s efficient finishing earned them a second 3-0 success.
Gérard Prêcheur’s Lyon were in even more formidable form as they put nine goals past Slavia Praha in the first leg of their quarter-final, overwhelming the visitors despite their deep 1-4-1-4-1 defensive set-up. Lyon dominated possession in the second leg too but Slavia held out for a 0-0 draw – the only time in eight matches that the eventual champions failed to find the net.
Lyon were back at their clinical best when hosting Paris in front of 22,050 spectators – a record for a women’s European club game other than the final – in the first leg of their all-French semi-final. They had lost when the teams met in the round of 16 in 2015 but now made amends with a stunning triumph, scoring from seven of their eight attempts on target.
For Benstiti, it was a coach’s nightmare. With two key players (Shirley Cruz Traña and Jessica Houara-d'Hommeaux) suspended, he had to contend with two defenders and a central midfielder (Laure Boulleau, Laura Georges, Kheira Hamraoui) hobbling off during the opening 36 minutes – by when OL had already established a two-goal lead. Amid the disruptive changes to personnel, the home team added three more goals in the minutes before half-time.
There was no coming back for Paris, the 2015 runners-up, whose 1-0 defeat in the second leg – courtesy of Lotta Schelin’s 41st European goal for Lyon, a record for a player for a single club – meant they had failed to find the net in four of their last five matches in the competition.
As for Wolfsburg, like Lyon they took control early in the first leg of their all-German semi-final against Frankfurt. Kellermann’s team exploited ruthlessly the wide spaces exposed by Frankfurt’s narrow midfield diamond to run in three goals in the first half, before adding a fourth just before the hour. In the return leg, Frankfurt struggled to find passing channels through the Wolfsburg rearguard and the solitary goal – Marith Priessen’s late header from a corner – was a mere afterthought. A repeat of the 2013 final beckoned between two teams who had jointly scored 53 goals and conceded only two apiece during their eight-match march along the road to Reggio Emilia.