Crunch Time in the Women’s Champions League: Quarter-Final Preview
We’ve reached the business end of the 2022-23 football season, where accolades and bragging rights are on the line. The biggest prize in women’s club football is entering its final stages, with the UEFA Women’s Champions League now down to just eight teams.
Here, we preview the key stories behind each of the four quarter-final ties through the use of Opta data.
Barcelona vs. Roma
David vs. Goliath in the UWCL
Three-time UEFA Women’s Champions League finalists. The team that broke Lyon’s incredible streak of five straight European titles. The Spanish women’s football juggernaut. Barcelona. One of the favourites for the UWCL title in 2022-23.
But to win, they’ll have to get past the new kids on the block, AS Roma.
Roma are this year’s Cinderella story. The team has existed for just five years, but they have already risen to the top of Italian football, achieving UWCL qualification, a Coppa Italia title and an Italian Supercup win during this period.
The 2022-23 season looks like it could be their best yet. Roma have already booked their place in the 2023 Coppa Italia final after defeating Milan, while they currently hold an eight-point lead over Juventus – the winners of the last five titles – in the final stages of the Serie A campaign.
The team is tactically flexible and has real heart under manager Alessandro Spugna. They switch between formations seamlessly and play an exciting brand of football which is heavily reliant on their use of wide players. The majority of their chance creation comes from the flanks, with the wingers and wing-backs taking up creative and shot-taking responsibilities.
Overall, 10 goals and 155 shots have been created via a pass or cross from open play from either flank this season. Their 18.7 open-play crosses per game this season is by far the most of any other side in the division.
Wingers/wing-backs Emilie Haavi (0.25), Annamaria Serturini (0.24) and Benedetta Glionna (0.2) rank among the top six in the league for expected assists per 90 from open play this season, while both Haavi (13) and Glionna (nine) rank within the top six players for chance creation via ball carries in 2022-23 across Serie A.
Roma are a shot-happy team, averaging 25.9 non-penalty shots per game – at least five more than anyone else in the league, while they also average a Serie A-high 2.15 non-penalty xG per game. The wide players are crucial in producing this volume as well. Serturini (5.7) and Glionna (5.6) rank first and second respectively for non-penalty shots per 90 across Serie A this season.
Barcelona have been as dominant as ever domestically in 2022-23 despite the absence of two-time UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Alexia Putellas. They are well known for being technically and tactically sound in midfield and often top the football ‘aesthetic’ charts. Despite Putellas being out, they have managed to keep that style in the middle of the pitch with a midfield comprising Keira Walsh, Patri Guijarro, Aitana Bonmatí and Ingrid Engen.
In the wake of Putellas’ absence and fresh arrivals, the roles in midfield have changed. Walsh has slowly established herself as a deeper midfielder while Patri is playing a slightly advanced role and Aitana has shouldered more of the offensive labour.
Aitana has already scored more goals in the UWCL this season (five) than the previous campaign (four) while also recording four assists – the club leader in both metrics, while her 26 shots are second only to top scorer Ewa Pajor of VfL Wolfsburg (35) overall. Her ability to arrive late into the box has been the key behind her increased attacking end product this season.
The Barcelona star is the leading player in the UWCL (58) for open-play shot sequence involvements, while she’s third across the Spanish top-flight on a per 90 basis (8.6), showing her importance in the team’s shot creation across both competitions. Of her 164 involvements over both competitions this season, 70 (43%) have come as the player on the end of the move and taking the shot.
Another storyline in this game is the return of the former UWCL-winning Barcelona captain, Vicky Losada, to Camp Nou along with ex-Barcelona player, Andressa Alves. This time trying to bring down the empire they helped build.
Barcelona arrive as favourites but with Roma’s wing-focused play and Barcelona’s aggressive full-backs, there is an opportunity for Roma to find joy down the flanks. If the Italians can get Manuela Giugliano to ping balls in that space quickly, they could throw a curveball to test Barcelona’s resolve.
A David vs. Goliath battle with a touch of homecoming. Bad blood? Probably not. Exciting storylines? Hell yeah.
Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal
The Red Wedding?
Bayern Munich and Arsenal have similar stories. Both sides often find themselves second-best domestically and both have just one major trophy across the last five years.
Bayern Munich’s most recent triumph came in the form of a league win in the 2020-21 season, whereas Arsenal recently ended their trophy drought with a 3-1 Conti Cup win over Chelsea earlier this month.
Bayern are the only team to defeat Barcelona this season, following their 3-1 victory on MD4 of the UWCL group stage. It was an impressive win, one in which their gameplan was executed to a tee. After experimenting to find balance early on in the season, manager Alexander Strauss has settled on a 4-2-3-1 and Bayern have a rhyme and reason about them now.
The midfield for both sides is stacked with talent and integral to either team’s chance creation and ball progression. The midfielders for both these teams offer incredible dynamism with line-breaking runs from midfield and incisive passing, while having a profile that can protect the backline.
A talent pool consisting of Sarah Zadrazil, Lia Walti, Georgia Stanway, Kim Little, Sydney Lohmann, Frida Maanum, Katherine Kuhl and Lina Magull is salivating.
Bayern summer signing Stanway has been a major part of finding balance for the Bavarian side.
Stanway is the joint top scorer for Bayern in the competition in 2022-23, tied with Klara Buhl (three), while she also has a team-high three assists. She has been involved in the most open-play attacking sequences for Bayern in the UWCL this season (35), while in the Bundesliga she is the overall league leader with 90 – 12 more than any other player.
She is an integral part of Bayern’s progression up the pitch, completing the most passes into the final third of the pitch across the whole Bundesliga this season (185), while also leading the metric for the club in the UWCL (85) so far in 2022-23. Not only this, but her ball-winning attributes are important to the German side, with her 23 tackles and total possession-winning actions (62) the highest of any player in the Champions League so far this season.
Playing alongside Sarah Zadrazil in a double pivot, Stanway brings a whole spectrum of qualities to the table, ranging from winning the ball back, helping in ball progression and chance creation.
Arsenal started hot under coach Jonas Eidevall once again but have lost momentum with long-term injuries to star players Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema. They are currently fourth in the WSL table, five points off leaders Chelsea but with a game in hand on Manchester City and Manchester United knowing that a win would take them level with the two Manchester clubs.
But recent form has been impressive. They followed up the Conti Cup win over Chelsea, with back-to-back WSL victories over Liverpool (2-0) and Reading (4-0).
One player crucial in Arsenal’s attempts to win four in a row will be chief creator Frida Maanum.
The Norwegian has found her footing at Arsenal this season, with the 23-year-old given the freedom in an attacking role that suits her skillset.
Across the WSL and UWCL combined, Maanum has created the most chances for Arsenal overall (40) and from open play (30) this season. Her nine goals in both competitions make her their leading scorer, while she’s only attempted fewer shots across WSL and UWCL (57) than Stina Blackstenius (65) and Caitlin Foord (58) for the Gunners and only Foord (120) has been involved in more open-play attacking sequences across both competitions than Maanum (114).
When Arsenal hammered Lyon 5-1 away on 19 October in the opening game of the group stage, they created a lot of noise. But since then, mainly due to injuries, they have found themselves mixing and matching pieces to find solutions to their problems – Noelle Maritz’s potential move to deputize at left-back against Bayern is an example of that. However, it’s clear that they have found some rhythm lately and will look to continue that with a positive result in the first leg away in Germany next week. They’ll have to improve their record of just one win in six UWCL meetings against German clubs, however…
Lyon vs. Chelsea
Star Power and Pedigree
This match pits the all-time most successful club in the UWCL (and previous formats) – Lyon, with their eight titles and 10 final appearances – against the new pretenders of women’s European club football: Chelsea.
They’ve locked horns once before, in the 2018-19 edition, where Lyon knocked out Chelsea in the semi-final, but that was a different time. Lyon went on to seal their fourth of five consecutive UWCL titles and Chelsea were just starting to build their project. Four years down the line, Chelsea are a much more dangerous proposition, while Lyon are being caught up.
Lyon have had injury issues of their own this season but the return of Selma Bacha, Ellie Carpenter, Sara Dabritz, Dzsenifer Marozsan and UWCL’s all-time top goalscorer, Ada Hegerberg, provide a huge boost for the French side.
Sonia Bompastor has tweaked the system this season to accommodate the absentees due to injury and that has led to Lyon looking different than usual this term.
French winger Delphine Cascarino has gone from strength to strength for Lyon.
She’s currently the leading player in the French top-flight for open-play chances created per 90 (2.0) and open-play expected assists per 90 (0.29).
With a change in system (4-3-1-2/4-4-2-diamond compared to 4-3-3 last season) under Sonia Bompastor, Cascarino has been a lively presence in the box. Her touches inside the penalty area have increased to 6.9 per 90 compared to 4.3 last campaign.
This change of role reflects in some of her ball carry numbers as well. Her carries into the final third have reduced from 2.5 per 90 to 2.0 per 90 while there’s a marked increase in her carries entering the penalty box from 1.6 to 2.9 per 90 this season.
Chelsea began the 2022-23 campaign slowly, but following a win in the title six-pointer against Manchester United last weekend, they lead the English top-flight heading into the UWCL quarter-finals. While usual suspects like Sam Kerr and Guro Reiten have continued their strong performances, youngster Lauren James – sister of Chelsea and England men’s right-back Reece – has propelled herself into the mix for Chelsea’s star of the season.
James has found continuity for Chelsea this season and has been performing at her scintillating best.
The English winger is a powerful ball carrier and only 12 players across the league have averaged a higher progressive carries per 90 (7.2) than her (min. 800 minutes). With that in mind, it’s surprising that she’s only created two chances from carries in the WSL across 2022-23, but there’s little doubt that her ability to beat an opponent with her pace and skill is a key attribute – no player in the WSL has beaten opposition players with a take-on as many times as James this season (23).
Whilst they currently lead PSG in the Division 1 Féminine standings by a single point, Lyon are head and shoulders above all other French top-flight teams when it comes to chance creation. Their non-penalty xG average per game in the league this season is 2.66, with the next highest Paris Saint-Germain at just 1.60. They also have the best quality non-penalty shots on average (0.13 xG), but if there is any criticism, it’s that they can waste chances.
Their 12% shot conversion rate is below five other French league clubs, while they have actually underperformed their non-penalty xG by 2.6 (excluding own goals). Compare this to clubs like Fleury 91 (+13.3), PSG (+9.5), Reims (+8.4) and Paris FC (+7.7) and there might be a case for Lyon to slip up if they end up being toothless rather than ruthless in front of goal over these two legs against Chelsea.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have brought in new faces and even lured former Lyon central defender Kadeisha Buchanan to the club in the summer. But question marks remain if this is a star team or a just a team of stars. Occasional complaints of a lack of tactical clarity from coach Emma Hayes and an over reliance on individual brilliance to bail them out of tricky situations has been the talk among the fans.
Will it be enough for them to topple the European royalty? Time will tell.
Wolfsburg vs. Paris Saint-Germain
A Tale of Two Strikers
Wolfsburg and Paris Saint-Germain have been there or thereabouts in the UWCL over the last decade – between 2013 and 2020, 2019 was the only final that didn’t involve either club. However, one of these giants of women’s club football will be going out at the quarter-final stage in 2022-23.
Both teams are title contenders in their respective countries, with PSG just a point off Lyon in France, while Wolfsburg currently hold a two-point lead over Bayern Munich after 14 games in the German top-flight.
One reason for potential success this season is that two of the best strikers currently playing in women’s football across the world are at these clubs: Ewa Pajor at Wolfsburg and Kadidiatou Diani at PSG.
Pajor’s injury woes are well behind her and the Polish powerhouse is scoring goals for fun this season. She is currently the top goalscorer in the 2022-23 UWCL (seven) and the second top scorer Bundesliga (nine), but second in the German top-flight assist rankings with six.
The threat she poses to opposition defences isn’t just witnessed through top-level stats like goals and assists – she also leads the league rankings for total shots (53), shots on target (22) and touches in the opposition box (118) in the German league, while she also averages the highest non-penalty xG per 90 (1.01).
Her pace, off-the-ball movement and timing of runs make her a menace to deal with, but she is often the finishing touch on moves rather than being heavily involved in the build-up. Of her 69 open-play attacking sequence involvements in the Bundesliga this season, 46 of those have seen her only involvement being the shot (67%).
For PSG, Diani has had to play a different role this season due to the injury to star striker Marie Antoinette-Katoto, and she hasn’t missed a beat. The French winger leads the league in both goals (17) and assists (six) while playing as the striker, which is her best goal return for PSG in a league campaign.
She’s shouldered both the goalscoring and chance creation responsibilities for PSG this season, with a league-high 66 shots, the highest non-penalty xG total (10.0), while only Paris FC’s Gaëtane Thiney (4.3) has a higher expected assists total in the French league than she has (3.4).
Wolfsburg’s 2-1 defeat to Hoffenheim on 4 March was their first defeat of the 2022-23 campaign, although they did recover with a strong 4-1 win at Bayer Leverkusen last weekend. Between now and the PSG game, they face Turbine Potsdam in the Bundesliga on Friday night, but will be expected to defeat opponents that are rooted to the bottom of the league on one point from 13 games.
PSG showed that they have frailties in the UWCL group stage, losing both meetings with Chelsea without scoring a single goal, while also drawing at Real Madrid on MD2, again without scoring a goal.
A decisive factor in this game will be the match-up between the defensive line and the attacks for both teams. The defensive lines lack pace for both sides, which could prove detrimental when coming up against players like Kadi Diani, Ewa Pajor, Jule Brand and Sveindis Jonsdottir.
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