A wing of change
Ninety minutes of frustration followed by half an hour of pure drama. That was the emotional map of the two hours of matchplay acted out at the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Stadium while a sunny evening gradually faded into twilight and darkness. It was a final when the lights suddenly came on – literally and figuratively.
There were great expectations among a crowd of 14,237 as VfL Wolfsburg and Olympique Lyonnais took the field to re-enact the 2016 final in which extra-time and penalties had taken the action close to the witching hour. Although both teams were now being directed by different coaches, there was more than a hint of déjà vu, with the team sheets in Kyiv featuring 23 names familiar to those who had watched the proceedings in Reggio Emilia.
As the ‘home’ team, Wolfsburg were entitled to remain faithful to their white-and-green livery – and to the 1-4-2-3-1 structure which had served them well on the road to the final. Lyon, less familiar in navy blue, generally mirrored their opponents’ formation while in possession but were ready for fast transitions into compact 1-4-4-2 defending, albeit with a high line that gave Sarah Bouhaddi ample room to exercise her goalkeeping talents outside the box. Frustratingly for the spectators, she was rarely obliged to do so. As soon as the Czech referee signalled for the ball to start rolling, it became apparent that familiarity was breeding respect. The teams had studied each other meticulously. Lyon, wary of Wolfsburg’s attacking potential, adopted a risk-management approach, maintaining good balance and ensuring that the opposition had minimal possibilities to execute counterattacks. Wolfsburg matched them for caution, keeping the two central midfielders, Alexandra Popp and Sara Bjork Gunnarsdóttir, in their screening positions, while the back four was efficiently marshalled by the strong, athletic Nilla Fischer. There was no positional interchanging and the aura of stalemate was epitomised by the contest between Pernilla Harder, Wolfsburg’s main attacking threat operating in the wake of lead striker Ewa Pajor, and Lyon’s industrious holding midfielder Saki Kumagai. As remarked by Anja Palusevic, one of UEFA’s technical team in Kyiv, “Harder was well covered by her direct opponent and, especially during the first half, struggled to show her total qualities.”
Wolfsburg’s approach play focused on the wide areas. With Lyon’s high pressing pre-empting comfortable construction through the thirds, the norm was for the keeper or one of the centre-backs to hit long diagonals to open up the play. But Caroline Graham Hansen and Lara Dickenmann failed to assert themselves on the wings, while Ewa Pajor, unable to find spaces through the middle, also found it difficult to penetrate when she drifted wide to receive. Unhampered by high pressing, Lyon were able to build patiently from the back, looking impressively composed in possession and probing for openings by switching the game rapidly to the wingers. But they struggled to play through the middle third and their best attempts came from a counter when Wolfsburg had committed players forward for a set piece or from long-range shooting or set plays of their own. The creative skills of Dzsenifer Marozsan were stifled by Wolfsburg’s aggressive midfield pressing and, as the half-hour mark approached, she began to look around for accomplices as Lyon’s high collective pressing began to fade, giving Wolfsburg greater chances to string together some combination play.
But, apart from a brief spell of end-to-end play around the quarter-hour mark, there was little to deter the fans from amusing themselves with the Mexican Wave. Passing was so hurried and edgy that play was punctuated by throw-ins and the technical observers shared the frustrating feeling that such high-quality players were unable to express themselves on a stage which was ideal for the promotion of ‘the beautiful game’. When the referee’s whistle heralded half-time, thrills had been few and far between.
The ominous news for Wolfsburg was that Caroline Graham Hansen did not reappear after the interval, with Tessa Wullaert taking her place. There was further disruption when Gunnarsdóttir had to be withdrawn 12 minutes later – Joelle Wedermeyer coming on to try to maintain the effective midfield partnership with Popp. Lyon began to create more chances to test Almuth Schult, who needed to display her 1 v 1 goalkeeping talents after ball-losses in critical defensive areas had allowed Eugénie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry to run at her.
And so, as the floodlights began to cast shadows in higher definition, to extra-time – and to a totally different game. Within minutes, Schult had found Harder with a long pass to the left. For once, Kumagai had been drawn out of position. The Denmark attacker set off on a run marked by changes of pace and direction against opponents who gave her enough space to strike a left-footed shot that made its way past Bouhaddi’s outstretched right arm into the corner of the net. Wolfsburg jubilation was intense but short-lived. It was followed almost immediately by two pivotal moments.
Firstly, Reynald Pedros injected pace and fresh legs into the Lyon attack by sending on European champion winger Shanice van de Sanden for the tiring Kumagai. And, within seconds, Popp launched herself into a two-footed tackle wide on the right in opposition territory, practically in front of the Lyon bench. Already yellow-carded in the second half, it earned her a dismissal. Stephan Lerch, with three changes made and the midfield disrupted, hurriedly tried to re-shuffle his cards into a 1-4-4-1 defensive pack. Pedros, however, held the trump card.
Within seconds, Ada Hegerberg lofted a pass into the path of Henry who, cutting in from the right and muscling past a tackle, struck hard into the top corner. In the blink of an eye, a through pass set van de Sanden clear on the right. She outpaced the defence and struck a low cross that the onrushing Le Sommer turned into the net. The Wolfsburg lead which had taken 93 minutes to build had been demolished in a matter of seconds.
Within four minutes, the damage was compounded. Henry and Le Sommer combined to win possession in Lyon’s defensive third and launch an immediate counter, Le Sommer hitting a deep pass behind the Wolfsburg left-back to the sprinting van de Sanden, whose cross was hit into the ground by Hegerberg with the bounce taking it high into the net, allowing her to celebrate a record 15th goal in the competition. With four minutes remaining, a Lucy Bronze throw-in on the halfway line was shielded by Hegerberg and touched to van de Sanden. Outstripping the defence again, she cut the ball back for the coup de grâce to be delivered by Camille Abily – practically her first touch in her two minutes on the pitch as another inspired substitution. Lyon had shown quality and efficiency at the crucial juncture to score four excellent goals in eight minutes.
When the final whistle sounded, the occupants of the Lyon bench raced on to the pitch. The players, however, did not race anywhere. Physically and emotionally exhausted, they collapsed like a pack of cards on to the grass while Pedros fell to his knees near the touchline and directed a heartfelt shout to the heavens. Lerch, as shell-shocked as his players, admitted to an “empty feeling”. “We gave our all over 120 minutes and put in a good fight,” he said, “and it leaves you with a certain bitterness to realise it wasn’t enough.” Deep into the Kyiv night, Lyon celebrated a third consecutive title – a hat-trick which Real Madrid were to replicate in the same city two days later.