The UEFA Women’s Champions League is arguably the ultimate prize in women’s football across Europe. It’s a badge of honour only worn a select few, and 2022-23 promises to be no different. Records will once again be broken again and there’ll be more eyes on the competition than ever before.
The draw has bestowed us with some tasty groups, including a few matchups well worthy of being a knockout game.
We comb through the data to look at the potential contenders, challengers and a couple of new kids on the block.
The giants of the women’s game. With six UEFA Women’s Champions League titles in the last seven years – five of them coming back-to-back – Lyon are perpetual contenders. They are once again the defending champions coming into this campaign.
But injuries have plagued them again this season, with long-term injuries to starting centre-back, Griedge Mbock, and right-back Ellie Carpenter. They especially look thin at the centre-back position after also losing Kadeisha Buchanan to Chelsea in the summer.
In attack, star striker and Women’s Champions League’s all-time top goalscorer with 59 goals, Ada Hegerberg, is unavailable. Last season’s breakout star, Catarina Macario, is out with a long-term injury as well. Two of Germany’s finest midfielders, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Sara Däbritz, the latter of whom arrived this summer from direct rivals Paris Saint-Germain, are also out. Lyon’s medical room is at capacity.
With a host of injuries and some key players entering their twilight, manager Sonia Bompastor has a new challenge on her hands this season if she is to defend her European title. The squad is still littered with talent, and Lyon are more than capable of causing any team problems. Starlets like Melvine Malard and Damaris Egurrola are still relatively young and have only grown in stature.
Delphine Cascarino’s development over the years has seen her turn into one of the pillars of the squad. The French international is extremely adept at progressing play by carrying the ball forwards, and her close ball control enables her to dribble around defenders with ease. Her acceleration allows her to ghost past and generate separation, from which she can then create chances for her team-mates. Although her final ball needs some polishing, she currently leads the charts in France for most chance-creating carries in the league (nine) and has the fourth-highest number of carries involving a take-on (nine).
Selma Bacha has been one of the most important players under Bompastor. Bacha recorded the most assists for the French champions last season with 16 in all competitions. The 21-year-old Lyon academy graduate has a devilish delivery from crosses and set-piece situations. She’s also very good at providing supporting overlapping runs, helping Lyon create chances from wide areas.
Lyon are Lyon and despite their injuries, it’d be foolish to bet against the team that knows the ins and outs of this competition better than anyone else.
Barcelona have firmly established themselves as one of the biggest teams in women’s football with an ability to attract the very best talent. Their stature was further solidified with the arrivals of England internationals and European champions, Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh.
While injury to arguably the world’s best women’s footballer, Alexia Putellas, does weaken the Blaugrana machine, they have been smart with their recruitment in the summer.
With five reinforcements arriving, Barcelona have addressed the pressing concerns in their squads at full-back position with the arrival of left-back Nuria Rábano (from Real Sociedad) and right-back Lucy Bronze (from Manchester City). They have further added attacking depth in the form of Brazilian youngster, Geyse Ferreira, and Spanish prodigy, Vicky López, adding depth for the future in the process.
Bronze is a big addition. The European Champion is excellent at progressing play with her carries, able to drive powerfully forward to provide penetration in the final third. She ranked second among full-backs and seventh overall for progressive carries of 10 or more metres in the WSL last season (66), underlining her ability to drive long distances with the ball. She’s relentless in her pursuit to advance possession which might result in some questionable positioning in defensive situations at times.
Keira Walsh had her crowning moment in the summer and that quickly saw her become the most expensive signing in women’s football history with her move to Barcelona. Walsh’s poise on the ball and her awareness without it makes her one of the best in her role. While not directly involved in shots, Walsh is extremely good at knitting play together and is often involved in long periods of possession that ultimately lead to shots. She was involved in the second most open-play build-up sequences (moves involving at least 10 passes) that led to shots in the WSL last season (66). The vision, range and execution on her passes allow her to circulate and retain possession while still being incisive.
With Bronze and Walsh capable of retaining and progressing the ball in the attacking third using their passing and ball carrying, Barcelona shouldn’t find it difficult to sustain possession in the final third. Not that it was a problem area for them in the past.
Barcelona find themselves up against Bayern, Rosengard and Benfica in the group stage and will be aiming for another final appearance this year. They have all the tools to do so.
Wolfsburg are one of the OGs of the game and have consistently been among the top teams for over a decade now. The title, however, has escaped the hands of the team to successfully defend it in 2013.
The club is transitioning into a new era, with major turnovers at the club that saw eight new signings arrive last season and a further three this summer. Wolfsburg’s recruitment has seen them secure some of Germany’s finest talents like Jule Brand and Lena Oberdorf.
20-year-old Oberdorf was voted Young Player of the Tournament at this summer’s Women’s European Championships and has all the hallmarks of being one of the best players in women’s football for years to come.
She’s integral in providing a foundation for Wolfsburg to build an attack from. She has already proved that in the Bundesliga this year, regaining possession three times before initiating an open-play sequence for her side that resulted in a shot, a figure higher than anyone else in the league. Like Walsh, the German midfielder is an integral part of the build-up phases for her side and has been involved in 10 build-up sequences leading to a shot, the second-highest highest in the league.
It’s her game-reading, prescient movements and physical robustness that make her an insurmountable presence in the centre of the park. The German stalwart has won 21 duels and has recovered possession 16 times in three games so far. While their backline seems shaky, Wolfsburg have one of the best screening presences ahead of their defence. At 20, Oberdorf is already a pillar in the team.
The return of Ewa Pajor bolsters the squad further. The Polish striker, who has struggled with a knee problem in the last couple of seasons, has scored three and assisted three in her three league appearances so far, leading the charts in both categories. The 25-year-old is a menacing presence to deal with thanks to her speed and elusive movement and is consistently involved in the final product.
No player has been involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences than the Wolfsburg striker (24). Seventeen of those have been direct shot involvements (when Pajor’s only involvement in a move is taking the final shot) showing how she is consistently the focal point of attack for her side.
Wolfsburg’s project is still in its nascent stages, as the players they have recruited are yet to reach their full potential. The prospect is scary, and Wolfsburg seem ready to push for the podium this year.
Paris Saint Germain
Paris Saint Germain have been the perennial pretenders at the European stage, always sidekicks to the mighty Lyon in France and in Europe.
This season is different. The turnover at the club in terms of players and the manager has meant PSG are still discovering their identity and lack synergy. Injuries haven’t helped either.
The club’s all-time leading goalscorer, Marie-Antoinette Katoto, is set to miss the season with an injury picked up at the Euros. The 23-year-old is one of the most efficient and lethal players inside the box, scoring at least 15 goals in each of her last six league seasons.
Everything points to Kadidiatou Diani taking on an ever-bigger role in the squad in Katoto’s absence. She leads the table for goals scored in the league (four) and sits joint second in the assist table (two).
Her ability to take on a player while carrying the ball has been a major source of threat for the Parisians. No player recorded more carries with take-ons than Diani last season (42) but this season with an added responsibility to be the goalscoring threat as well, it’ll be interesting to see how this impacts her carrying and take-on volume.
While the Parisians have enough firepower in attack to ask questions of any defence, their backline doesn’t inspire the same amount of confidence. Starting centre-back, Paulina Dudek has succumbed to a season-long injury as well.
Losing Dudek has severely weakened the backline, with the Polish centre-back heavily involved in the Parisian’s build-up and defensive activities. She was regularly tasked with carrying the ball out of defence for her team – no player had more 10+ metre carries (102) and higher carry directness (59% of her carrying distance was directly upfield) than the Poland international. It will be interesting to see how PSG replace that.
Full-backs will once again be vital for the French side. Ashley Lawrence and Sakina Karchaoui are excellent ball progressors. Both Lawrence and Karchaoui rank in the top five for long progressive carries last season with 96 and 91 respectively, and they will once again be tasked with getting the team up the pitch.
In midfield, Grace Geyoro is one of the absolute pillars of the squad and will be even more integral given the injuries and integration of new faces. The arrival of Jackie Groenen from Manchester United does help the Paris side but the synergy between different moving parts is still lacking.
Injuries and departures leave a big void to be filled and how they cope with that, alongside a change in play style under a new manager, remains to be seen. The Parisians do find themselves in a tricky group alongside Chelsea and Real Madrid and this might be their toughest challenge in the competition yet.
But PSG have shown in the past that as long as the opponent isn’t Lyon, they are very much capable of holding their own.
Chelsea are an enigma at this stage of the season. The Blues brought in five new players this summer and while their signings are all established players, they are still finding their footing in Emma Hayes’ system. This lack of synergy may explain their opening-day loss to newcomers Liverpool in the WSL.
The arrivals of Johanna Rytting Kaneryd and Jelena Čanković add lots of offensive value while Kadeisha Buchanan and Ève Périsset have come in sure up the defence.
Beyond the obvious quality, there are many unanswered questions surrounding Chelsea at this stage of the season. Do they persist with a back three or shift to a traditional back four with club captain, Magda Eriksson, moving to left-back? Who plays in the wing-back roles and how can they strike balance between the fluidity and structure in the offensive gameplan while retaining defensive solidity?
Despite the concerns and questions, the talent pool at Chelsea is undeniable.
Erin Cuthbert’s transformation into an all-action midfielder for Chelsea last season was one of the squad’s key developments. Operating as the deepest midfielder now, Cuthbert is at the heart of regaining possession and kickstarting sequences for Chelsea. The 23-year-old regained possession 11 times before starting off an open-play sequence that ended in a shot, the second-highest rate in the league. Kirby provides robustness and is a tireless worker without the ball, closing down opponents and causing turnovers in dangerous areas.
England international Fran Kirby has been a pillar of Hayes’ side and is the creative hub for Chelsea. Her partnership with Sam Kerr has been one of the deadliest across Europe. During the 2021-22 season, Kirby ranked fourth in the league for direct chance involvements (29), underlining her ability to play the final killer ball.
She has continued to be decisive in front of goal this season, scoring in each of Chelsea’s three league appearances so far.
Members of another group of death in the UWCL this season, Chelsea will be looking to make amends for last campaign. Despite the disappointment of last year, Chelsea remain a side that can pack a punch if they can piece together a coherent side with the plethora of talent at their disposal.
The Fresh Faces
AS Roma have continued their rise under Alessandro Spugna. The club had a strong campaign last season and finished second in the league only behind Juventus, putting in some very strong performances. Their performances are strongly reflected in the underlying metrics as well. The underlying numbers show they deserved this finish too, with their 45.9 total expected goals and 15.5 expected goals against, both the second-best figures in the league.
Despite existing as a club for only four years, after taking over the license of Res Roma, they’ve already won their first trophy (the Coppa Italia in the 2020-21 season), and the club has continued to strengthen its position in the summer with an influx of six new signings.
The reinforcements this season seem like a step in the right direction, raising the team’s floor and ceiling at the same time. Veteran Italian striker, Valentina Giacinti, adds a much-needed true number nine presence. The former Milan striker is a master at getting shots off for herself. No player has more direct shot involvements than the 28-year-old Italian (15) so far this year, highlighting how she is the conclusion to a lot of attacking moves by Roma.
As a direct consequence of this, Roma have improved on the offensive end and have recorded the second-highest shots in the league so far.
Giacinti is just as intense with her off-ball work rate, consistently closing down ball carriers and passing lanes. She is always ready to put in a shift for the team.
23-year-old Annamaria Serturini is already a club giant in her own right. She is the all-time leading appearance maker for the club with 96 and leads the chart for most goals scored along with being the first-ever goalscorer for the club as well, having come through their youth ranks.
She has recorded the third-most shot-ending carries in the league this season, underlining her proclivity to run with the ball before firing a shot or creating an opportunity for her team-mate.
While their defence hasn’t looked assured yet, incoming signings Moeka Minami and Carina Wenninger add necessary steel to the rear guard. Full-back Elin Landström provides a two-way presence from the flanks along with an addition of physicality.
Minami, in particular, has become a vital part of their build-up. The 23-year-old Japanese centre-back adds value with her passing ability, helping the side to play out from the back. She is a key part of the possession scheme at Roma, with no player having more open-play sequence involvements (258) or open-play build-up involvements than the Roma centre-back (252) last season. Whenever her side have the ball, Minami is generally heavily involved.
In midfield, Manuela Giugliano continues to marshal the troops. The 24-year-old Italian is an excellent distributor and operates as the deep-lying playmaker for the side, and she is blessed with exquisite range and vision on her passes.
The current squad allows Spugna the flexibility to change formations and adopt different approaches. They find themselves in Group B alongside Wolfsburg, Slavia Praha and SKN St. Pölten, which will be a challenge. They are favourable fixtures in there though, and Spugna’s side will like their chances to advance into the knockout stages.
There’s plenty of room for improvement but Roma have the tools to surprise this season.
Real Madrid are making their second straight appearance in the UEFA Women’s Champions League group stages after completing the takeover of CD Tacon in 2019. The club has been on an upward trajectory following a managerial change last season, managing to finish third in the league and qualify for the UWCL qualification rounds. This season under Alberto Toril, Las Blancas have won all their games.
The positive trend has been visible in the arrivals at the club this season as well. Signings of French international, Sandie Toletti, alongside Manchester City and Scottish superstar, Caroline Weir adds undeniable quality on and off the ball for the Royal Whites.
Weir has already been an influential figure at the club, directly contributing to five goals and three assists. The Scottish midfielder has been handed the freedom to roam and to influence games with her on-ball quality. An excellent ball carrier, Weir helps her side beat the opposition press while retaining possession and gaining territory. Her balance and close control while carrying make it difficult to dispossess her.
Weir adds verticality in possession with her positioning. She consistently places herself in between the lines, in half-spaces to receive the passes. She is heavily involved in the final third and isn’t shot shy, often arriving in the box at the right time to get her shots off.
Athenea del Castillo continues her rise to superstardom, with the Spaniard being decisive in games on a consistent basis for the club this season. The youngster already has four goals and three assists to her name, forming a formidable partnership with Weir. The former Deportivo player is a menacing ball carrier, combining her skills with her pace to leave defenders in the dust with her dribbling. She recorded the joint-third most ball carries with take-on last season in the UWCL despite Real Madrid getting knocked out at the quarter-final stages and recorded a total of 52 take-ons – no one attempted more.
Real Madrid have inherited some great European pedigree and now with more experience in the tank, they seem very much capable of packing a punch and ruffling feathers in what seems like the group of death. The quarter-finalists in their first run in the competition will be looking to go one better and finish in the final four.
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