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UWCL Group Stage preview
Whether the WSL sides will make it to the knock out rounds remains...unclear
There was no WSL this weekend (or next) as everyone has headed off on international break but the Women’s Champions League Group Stage draw did take place this afternoon.
The group stage in the Women’s Champions League is still a bit of a novelty, having only been introduced last season. The extra challenges on teams to compete across six games in Europe over the winter has taken adjustment for some, and this year’s group stage looks set to be much more unpredictable than last years.
Whoever Chelsea have pissed off at UEFA, they need to try and make amends fast. Having exited the UWCL at the group stage last year, they might have felt entitled to a slightly easier draw this year. Group A is not that at all.
Despite coming out of Pot 3, Real Madrid might be Chelsea’s biggest threat in this group. The Spanish team only finished third in Liga F last season, sneaking into the Champions League spots on the final day, but they have strengthened significantly over the summer. Caroline Weir has already been playing havoc with English teams in the Champions League, knocking Manchester City out in qualifying. Athena del Castillo meanwhile will firmly test out whether Emma Hayes has solved Chelsea’s defensive issues when it comes to tricky wingers…
Paris St-Germain continue to be embroiled in off-field turmoil and its not looking a whole lot better on the field. The signing of Lieke Martens from Barcelona over the summer has proved to be a shrewd move but the injury to Marie-Antoinette Katoto at the Euros has left them playing either Kadidiatou Diani or Ramona Bachmann as a false nine. There are plenty of narratives between PSG and Chelsea: the Blues’ attempt to sign Grace Geyoro for a world record fee, the less than amicable parting that saw Bachmann leave the club, and a last minute winner from Maren Mjelde to knock out PSG of the 2018/19 UWCL.
Bringing up the rear in this group will be Albanian club Vllaznia who have won the Albanian league and cup every year for the past nine! It will be some introduction to group stage football for them.
Chelsea will certainly be more aware than they were last year of how dangerous a group stage can be. On paper, they should still be stronger than PSG and Real Madrid but reality could turn out to be very very different.
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A lot of focus on this group has been around how easy Wolfsburg have it. Last season’s semi-finalists look like a decent shout for dark horse winners of this year’s competition as a result of a squad that is bursting with attacking talent. They notably beat Barcelona in the second leg of their semi-final last year (although that was after they had lost 5-1 in the first leg) and have only strengthened since, adding Jule Brand and Merle Frohms to their squad. They clearly should be expected to win this group.
What makes this group exciting though is that it does not contain an obvious second placed team. This was a problem with almost all of the groups last year. Aside from last year’s Group A of Chelsea, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Servette, every other group had a clear top two, even if their order was not obviously determinable. All three of the other teams in this group are playing their first ever UWCL Group Stage.
Slavia Praha were the team from Pot 2 that everyone wanted. They just about scraped past Valur to make the group stages, winning 1-0 across the two legs. St Pölten meanwhile required an extra time winner over Finnish side KuPS to get through. Roma might actually be the favourites of the three to get out of the group even though they came from Pot 4. They quite comfortably beat traditional Slavia Praha rivals Sparta Praha to qualify and have only lost to Juventus so far this season in the league. With experienced players like Carina Wenninger (on loan from Bayern Munich) and proven goalscorer Valentina Giacinti, they are certainly a team to keep an eye on.
Group C is the other ‘Group of Death’ this year as UWCL holders Lyon will have to face their traditional bogey team Juventus. The two have met in the previous two editions of the competition, with each time Juventus managing to cause Lyon problems but Lyon ultimately prevailing. Juventus actually won the first leg of last year’s quarter final against Lyon after Ellie Carpenter was sent off. However, Joe Montemurro’s side have had a tough start to the season, drawing twice in the opening five games of Serie A.
Montemurro will also have a chance to return to his old club Arsenal who certainly have the quality to get out of this group but will need to improve on their performances in the previous UWCL qualifiers. Juventus’ style will likely suit Arsenal, with the Gunners having tended to struggle more with physical pressing sides rather than the more technical football of Montemurro teams. Not to mention that Arsenal’s players will have their own unique insight into it.
FC Zürich are the final members of this group, prompting a return for Arsenal right-back Noelle Maritz who began her senior career at the club. They eased through qualifying, smashing Bosnian team SFK Sarajevo 10-0 on aggregate, but it is hard to see them causing any of these sides many problems.
This might be the only group with two really obvious teams to go through in Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The two sides last met in the UWCL in 2018/19 with Barcelona winning 2-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals but both sides have changed considerably in the intervening years. Bayern look like they are still finding their feet under new manager Alexander Strauss, with things beginning to click going forward but they look less certain at the back, a big problem when you are playing Barcelona. These two games could be quite high scoring whilst there will be an intriguing midfield battle between former Manchester City and England team-mates, Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway.
It seems likely that it will be a fight between FC Rosengard and Benfica to be the best of the rest, although maybe Rosengard would still fancy themselves against Bayern at least. Teagan Micah in the Rosengard goal has shown herself to be outstanding when called upon by her national team in the past, and could help Rosengard try and spring a surprise.