The ball started rolling in late August 2017 with ten qualifying groups played as four-team mini-tournaments and this initial phase of the competition proved fruitful, with 237 goals at an average of 3.95 per fixture. The 10 group winners progressed to the knockout stage, along with FC Zürich, who cleared the hurdle as best runner-up. The draw decreed that they would meet Group 1 winners Gintra Universitetas in the Round of 32, when a 2-1 victory in Switzerland allowed the Lithuanian team to earn a place in the last 16. Among the other clubs who had started in the qualifying round, the only other team to equal that achievement was Stjarnan of Iceland, 5-1 aggregate victors over Russia’s Rossiyanka. Neither, however, made further progress, although Stjarnan performed well to hold Slavia Praha to a narrow 2-1 aggregate deficit.
The eyebrow-raising result of the first knockout round was VfL Wolfsburg’s 12-2 home win against Atlético Madrid, who had beaten FC Barcelona to the Spanish title. The scoreboard read 8-1 at half-time and, when the final whistle sounded, a dozen of the home team’s 14 on-target goal attempts had found the net. The opposite was the case in Montpellier, where none of the home team’s 32 attempts hit the net, allowing Zvezda 2005 to edge a 0-1 victory – which was then overturned by a brace of Sofia Jakobsson goals in the second half in Russia. Elsewhere, Glasgow City narrowly failed to rebound from a 3-0 first leg defeat by BIIK-Kazygurt, a 4-1 result in Scotland allowing the club from Kazakhstan to shade it on away goals. The other tie to be decided by the same rule was a clash of giants between Chelsea and FC Bayern München. After an early goal by Drew Spence had earned a 1-0 win in London, Emma Hayes’ team took the lead through Fran Kirby on the hour-mark and Bayern’s rousing finish produced a 2-1 win that sent Chelsea through. The overall balance of the round was 107 goals; only three draws; only four home wins in the first-leg matches; and nine in the reverse fixtures. Despite the epic result in Wolfsburg, the average fell to 3.34 goals per fixture.
Curiously, it surged upwards again during the Round of 16, largely thanks to the two French clubs rattling in 25 goals between them, Ada Hegerberg accounting for eight of Olympique Lyonnais’ tally of 16 against BIIK-Kazygurt, whereas Montpellier’s nine against Brescia were shared by as many players. With Fiorentina, despite a creditable 3-3 draw in Wolfsburg, also falling, Italy’s challenge was brought to an end. The Nordic challenge also faltered, with Linköping alone in clearing this hurdle while Rosengård were falling to Chelsea, LSK to Manchester City and Stjarnan to Slavia Praha. The latter’s neighbours, Sparta, were the team to be eliminated by Linköping. Slavia’s 2-1 aggregate win was, by far, the slimmest margin. The other ties registered differences of three goals or more. The first-leg fixtures in this round yielded only one home win (Chelsea 3 Rosengård 0) with an unusual balance of seven goals for home teams and 28 for visitors. A total of 66 goals were scored in the round at an average of 4.13 per match.
The goalscoring momentum was maintained by the 27 goals scored in the quarter-finals – 10 of them during the tie between Manchester City and Linköping. The Swedish team focused on deep 1-4-4-1 defending after Liza Lantz had committed two yellow-card offences in as many minutes, conceding a penalty in the process. After limiting the damage to a 2-0 defeat in Manchester, they were again overwhelmed by the power-play of Nick Cushing’s team and were dealt four further blows in the first half of the return. Lower intensity, more distant marking and lapses of defensive concentration after the interval allowed Linköping to bow out with a degree of grace after a 3-5 defeat.
Slavia Praha’s brave campaign was effectively ended in Wolfsburg, where they were obliged to find long-ball solutions to the home team’s high pressing – a ploy comfortably annulled Wolfsburg’s central midfielders. Pavel Medynský adjusted his game plan after the interval and better organisation limited the damage to a 5-0 defeat. Slavia, nonetheless, adopted a valiant approach to the return leg against a much-changed Wolfsburg team, concentrating their ball-winning efforts into a deeper midfield area and attacking dangerously along the flanks to earn a well-deserved 1-1 draw.
Montpellier may have felt they deserved better against Chelsea. They played neatly through the thirds and concentrated on attacking Chelsea’s back line of three down the left. But they were hit by two second-half goals and, despite upping the tempo and adopting a more direct approach, they failed to find a reply. Working equally hard, defending stoutly, executing fast transitions, they ticked many boxes in the return but were let down by inaccurate finishing and, conceding early in each half, were beaten 3-1.
Barcelona travelled to Lyon with a functional, well-prepared game plan; defended exceptionally well; and responded with composure to the expected dominance by the reigning champions. Their reward was an away goal in a 2-1 defeat and, in the return before a big crowd at the Mini Estadi, stuck to their patient possession game, even though OL pressed high and invited them to resort to the long ball. The visitors’ passing game and attacking variations allowed them to exercise control and a set-play goal on the hour mark allowed them to consolidate their game management and ward off Barcelona’s attempts to reply.
The reward for Reynald Pedros’ team was a repeat of the previous season’s semi-final against Nick Cushing’s Manchester City. They travelled to England with the intention of re-asserting the control they had exercised in Barcelona, enjoying a lot of possession in City’s half and showing patience and quality in their combination play. But City maintained pace, intensity and concentration over the 90 minutes and, despite some wayward passing at both ends of the pitch, denied the visitors opportunities to score. The return leg was a similar story, with City forced on to the back foot against an OL side that opted to change to a 1-4-4-2 structure with a midfield diamond. After former City full-back Lucy Bronze had struck a stunning early goal, the visitors struggled to shake off the Lyon stranglehold and penetrate into the final third. The 1-0 final score understated the degree of domination imposed by the home team’s composed possession play.
In London, Wolfsburg struggled initially against Chelsea’s aggressive high pressing but, as the home team’s energy began to flag, came back into the game with effective wing play, some neat combination football and well-organised set plays. Although Chelsea showed great spirit, there was little argument about the 1-3 scoreline which seemed destined to settle the tie. In Germany, Chelsea reverted to their 1-3-4-3 formation (1-4-3-3 in the first leg), only for Wolfsburg to attack strongly through the spaces behind the wing-backs. The visitors’ attacks were focused on fast incursions on the left, but the emphasis was on determined defending and shot-blocking against opponents who created a string of opportunities – and converted two of them without reply. Wolfsburg’s 5-1 aggregate victory had earned them a trip to Kyiv and a repeat of their 2016 final against Olympique Lyonnais.