UWCL Preview: Can Wolfsburg Reclaim the European Crown?

After the men kicked off the European restart with some scintillating games (Bayern 8–2 over Barça?!), it is now the women’s turn: the 2019–20 UEFA Women’s Champions League will resume on Friday, August 21. The eight remaining teams will descend on the Basque Country in Spain to play a single-elimination tournament, with the UWCL final scheduled on Sunday, August 30, in San Sabastián. As a reminder, all eight teams are able to register up to six new players (no more than three signed from the other quarter-finalists) for the restart.

Both German representatives, VfL Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich, will hope to set up an all-German final from opposite sides of the bracket. Wolfsburg, one of the deepest teams in Europe, face Scottish champions Glasgow City in the quarter-final and are favored to advance. Bayern will face Lyon in the same week as their men’s counterparts, but unlike Thomas Müller and co. they will be heavy underdogs against the four-time defending European champions in the quarter-final.

Here are (German-centric) previews and predictions for the Women’s Champions League from the Bundesliga Fanatic:

Glasgow City v. Wolfsburg

Glasgow City have won 13 consecutive Scottish Women’s Premier League titles, but they are without a doubt the only minnows left in the tournament as this is only the second time they have reached this far in the UWCL. Featuring primarily part-time players, Glasgow City almost had to forfeit their place in the quarter-final until a local philanthropist stepped in to fund the extra travel and COVID-19 testing expenses. Now with their finances sorted, Glasgow City will hope for a longer stay in Spain.

Unfortunately, Glasgow City were drawn against Wolfsburg, arguably the second-best women’s soccer club in Europe behind Lyon. Die Wölfinnen got a kind draw on the opposite side of the bracket from Lyon, and anything less than reaching the final would be a disappointment. Lyon have knocked out Wolfsburg from the UWCL in four consecutive years, and head coach Stephan Lerch’s team will hope to exact their revenge by reclaiming the European title they last won in 2014.

Key signings

Glasgow City have brought in center-back Janine van Wyk and striker Krystyna Freda to augment their Scottish core. Van Wyk is the most capped South African player of either gender and currently captains her national team. Freda, signed on loan for the tournament from Cypriot champions Apollon Ladies, has scored an absurd 245 goals in the past three seasons, but she has never played in a match at this level yet.

Already a deep squad, Wolfsburg brought in more German talents in midfielder Lena Oberdorf from SGS Essen, Pauline Bremer from Manchester City, and Kathy Hendrich from their Bavarian rivals. Polish goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek, signed from Paris Saint-Germain, is in line to start.

Key questions

Barring a monumental upset, Wolfsburg should have no problem getting past Glasgow City. But do they have what it takes to win it all? Wolfsburg aim to win the UWCL every year, but for a club of this ambition they somehow still have not filled the Nilla Fischer-shaped hole in their central defense. This soft underbelly could get exposed, as Lea Schüller did in the first minute of the DFB-Pokal final. Wolfsburg also need to keep their focus and not let Lerch’s impending departure in 2021 distract them from the immediate task at hand.

For Glasgow City, they should aim to put in a respectable performance and use it to springboard into the Scottish’s league’s new winter-calendar season. As domestic rivals Celtic and Rangers now field full-time professional teams, Glasgow City need to ensure that they remain top dogs in their own country before worrying about European competitions.

Players to watch

Glasgow City need to keep their defense water-tight and hope to spring on the counter-attach. They brought in van Wyk to provide experience and lead the defensive unit, and they will need the South African to put in an excellent performance to preserve any chance of advancing.

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While it would be easy to pick out any one of Wolfsburg’s excellent attacking players here, I will go with Dutch defender Dominique Janssen here. Signed from Arsenal last summer, Janssen could play any position along the backline (as well as defensive midfield) and is key to Wolfsburg’s in-game tactical adjustment.

Atlético Madrid v. Barcelona

Atléti and Barça will renew their domestic rivalry on the European stage, and as familiarity breeds contempt, there is no shortage of drama in this match-up. The two clubs have finished first or second in the Spanish Primera División for the past four years, with Barcelona snatching their first title since 2015 during the pandemic-shortened season. Barcelona also reached last year’s Champions League final, where they were blown out by Lyon. Subsequent to that match, English winger Toni Duggan left Barça for Atléti, then Barça immediately poached Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso from Atléti. It is safe to say there is no love lost between the two clubs.

Besides the drama, the on-field product here should be very entertaining as well (if Atléti can bring a full squad). Barcelona have spent the past few years aligning their women’s playing style with the “Barça way” and it seems to have finally borne fruit in the past year. In particular, Hermoso’s arrival last summer seemed to make the team gel. Neither team is short on star power either. Barça’s squad features Spanish national teamers like Alexia Putellas and Patri Guijarro, as well as international stars Lieke Martens, The Best FIFA Women’s Player in 2017, and Asisat Oshoala, the inaugural BBC Women’s Player of the Year in 2015.

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Atlético Madrid, on the other hand, seem to be to assembling a team of galácticos from the Spanish-speaking world. They pulled off a marketing coup by signing Venezuelan forward Deyna Castellanos, who has 1.4 million followers on Instagram, earlier this year. Also present are Mexican forward Charlyn Corral, Colombian midfielder Leicy Santos, and long-time Spanish international Silvia Meseguer. But they have lost pace with Barcelona in the league this year, and with the training stoppage they may have issues keeping up with their rivals in Bilbao on Friday.

Key signings

For Frauen-Bundesliga fans, there are plenty of familiar faces among the two Spanish clubs. Atléti went on a shopping spree this summer, bringing in Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl from Wolfsburg and German international Turid Knaak from SGS Essen. French goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin has also arrived from Arsenal, along with defensive signings Merel van Dongen, Alia Guagni, and Grace Kazadi (on loan from Lyon). Emelyne Laurent is another loanee from Lyon.

Barcelona, operating as defending league champions, have been quieter in their dealings with only one significant incoming transfer in young Brazilian forward Giovana Queiroz. Their squad features several players with experience in Germany like Carolina Graham Hansen, who had a devastating partnership with Pernille Harder while at Wolfsburg, and Swiss forward Ana-Maria Crnogorčević who played with both HSV and Frankfurt.

Key question

Will the game go ahead? Atlético Madrid reported five players testing positive for COVID-19 and, while all five are asymptomatic, the club have paused all training activities until this week. Per reporting from the Guardian, the game must go ahead if clubs still have a minimum of 13 players (including one goalkeeper) available for selection.

Players to watch

It is usually not praise when you call a center-back’s play “entertaining,” but Mapi Leon of Barcelona is a very entertaining center-back in the positive sense. Otherwise, keep an eye on the Norwegian winger Hansen, who was developing into a genuine star at Wolfsburg before leaving last summer.

For Atléti, I am intrigued to see who will be the No. 1 between two new arrivals Lindahl and Peyraud-Magnin. And let’s see if Castellanos will produce a star performance on the field to match her popularity off of it.

Arsenal v. Paris Saint-Germain

As Arsenal reminded us on Twitter, they are now the only English team left in a European competition. For this writer, they already play the most pleasing soccer of any English team playing in Europe this past season anyway. Arsenal are pioneers in European women’s soccer and are the only English team to have won the UWCL. After a few barren years, they are now back among the elites with head coach Joe Montemurro, winning the English FA Women’s Super League in 2019. Under Montemurro, Arsenal play with a total commitment to maintaining possession, with a pair of converted forwards playing full-backs for attacking width. Their midfield trio of Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs, and (former Turbine Potsdam captain) Lia Wälti is as good as anyone’s. If Arsenal had been on the other side of the bracket from Lyon, they would have been an easy pick to make the final.

Arsenal will face Paris Saint-Germain, the perennial little sister to Lyon in the French Division 1 Féminine. PSG, coached by former French national team manager Olivier Echouafni, have come so close to many silverwares but were usually thwarted by Lyon. Most recently, they lost the French cup final to Lyon in penalties, but they should still present a stiff challenge to Arsenal. Brazilian midfielder Formiga continues to defy time at age 42, while up front they have a collection of talented players like Marie-Antoinette Katoto, Kadidiatou Diani, Nadia Nadim, and Jordyn Huitema (who, along with Alphonso Davies of the Bayern men’s team, are the power couple in Canadian soccer right now). Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler burst into stardom during last year’s World Cup and has the ability to make some jaw-dropping saves.

Key signings

Arsenal have been cultivating the Australian connection and brought in goalkeeper Lydia Williams and left-back Steph Catley this summer to join Montemurro and forward Caitlin Foord. They also poached Noëlle Maritz, who could play full-back or winger on either side, from Wolfsburg. Malin Gut, Wälti’s back-up on the Swiss national team, was brought in to play the same role at the club level.

PSG have been quiet with their only notable signing being Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann from Chelsea. Bachmann gained notoriety for her play at the World Cup in 2015, but her end product has always been underwhelming and it is difficult to see her becoming a true difference maker on the European stage. PSG also brought back German goalkeeper Charlotte Voll from SC Sand to be Endler’s back-up.

Key questions

Montemurro is famous for preferring a small squad, which almost derailed Arsenal’s title-winning campaign, and this past season injuries to key players like Little and Wälti saw the Gunners finish third in the league. Will the condensed tournament schedule further decimate Arsenal’s squad? Regardless, Arsenal will be extremely motivated, as winning in the Basque Country is the only way for them to qualify for Europe this upcoming season.

Despite the ownership’s continual investment, PSG’s squad quality seems to be slipping and their big-name signings have not really worked out in recent years. One of those big-names was German midfielder Sara Däbritz, who joined from Bayern Munich last summer. Däbritz settled well but then suffered an ACL injury that caused her to miss the rest of the season. It will be exciting to see her back in action, but going straight into UWCL knockout games is a tough way to begin your injury comeback.

Players to watch

I managed somehow to not mention Vivianne Miedema, Arsenal’s record-breaking No. 9, until now. The Gunners began their climb back to the elites with a Dutch core of Janssen, Sari van Veenendaal, and Daniëlle van de Donk (the former two have left the club), but it was the arrival of Miedema in 2018 from Bayern Munich that put them over the top. An elegant striker who loves to drop back and link up play, Miedema have been the top scorer in every season she’s played in England, and there have been some outrageous games (including one at Bristol City where she scored six and assisted on four more). With players like Little, Nobbs, van de Donk, and Beth Mead providing service, look for Miedema to continue scoring for fun. (Admitting some recency bias, it does seem like we’re in a golden age of strikers in women’s soccer: Miedema, Wolfsburg’s Pernille Harder, Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg, Chelsea’s Sam Kerr are some generational talents playing right now.)

PSG players seem to either have regressed in the past few years (like Grace Geyoro) or have been too inconsistent to be considered world-class (like Diani, Nadim, and Bachmann). The one player who’s been consistent and dependable is Canadian Ashley Lawrence, who has claimed the right-back spot ever since her arrival in 2017. Depending on which left-side combination of van de Donk, Catley, and Katie McCabe Arsenal trot out on Saturday, it will be up to Lawrence to shut them down.

Lyon v. Bayern Munich

This is probably the juiciest match-up of the four quarter-finals, as Bayern Munich must upset four-time defending European champions and the best women’s soccer club in the world in order to advance. Lyon is the poster child for what one could achieve in European women’s soccer if you have a dedicated owner willing to treat the women’s team with the same professionalism as you would treat the men’s, from youth development to transfer spending. The result is “the world’s most dominant team” in any sport. Besides a core of French internationals, Lyon’s squad features international all-stars and world-class players at every position (except perhaps left-back); they are also the only quarter-finalist who can boast a two-deep depth chart at every spot. Let’s not beat around the bush: the UWCL title is Lyon’s to lose.

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Bayern, however, are not going to just roll over. Having overhauled their squad this summer, head coach Jens Scheuer needs to integrate new signings quickly and the early results are encouraging. Lea Schüller, who should be the starting No. 9 for the German national team for the next decade, seems to have developed good chemistry with fellow attacker Linda Dallmann and is banging in goals for fun during pre-season. Hanna Glas, another new arrival from PSG, is now partnering her international teammate Amanda Ilestedt in central defense. Besides Lina Magull, the midfield lacks a true creative outlet but should be solid enough to provide stability. Giulia Gwinn, best young player at last year’s World Cup, continues to terrorize opposing defense from the right side. Sure, this squad still does not compare to Lyon’s, but no one else’s does either and Bayern have enough quality to have a fighting chance.

Key signings

Lyon are active in every transfer window because being the best means no standing still. Their English full-backs, Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood, signed short-term extensions to finish up the Champions League before joining Manchester City, so Lyon went out and signed Ellie Carpenter and Sakina Karchaoui as replacements. German back-up goalkeeper Lisa Weiß leaving for Aston Villa? No problem; let’s just go grab Atlético’s starter and Spanish international Lola Gallardo. More midfield depth to complement Amandine Henry, Saki Kumagai, and Dzsenifer Marozsán? We will just poach Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir from Wolfsburg. Injury to inaugural Ballon d’Or winner Hegerberg? Bring in 2017 Women’s Euro Golden Boot winner Jodie Taylor as cover. Sometimes squad building at Lyon is exactly like playing fantasy football.

Bayern have also been active, bringing in six new players to replace those departing and retiring. Schüller is the most important one, as they have lacked a top-shelf No. 9 for several years now. French attacker Viviane Asseyi is an intriguing signing as historically Bayern’s play has been a bit rigid, and it will be interesting to see whether Asseyi could inject additional creativity to the team.

Key questions

Even though they would not count as weaknesses for other clubs, there are some questions that Lyon must answer. First and foremost, Hegerberg, one of the best strikers in the world, is out injured. Lyon have coped by sliding Eugénie Le Sommer or Nikita Parris centrally but the results have been uneven, so they went out and signed Taylor from their American affiliate OL Reign. Will Taylor prove to be a serviceable option?

Second, Lyon’s starting center-back Griedge Mbock Bathy is also out injured. They can simply play their third center-back Kadeisha Buchanan, the best young player at the 2015 World Cup, alongside captain Wendie Renard, but the lack of repetition between the two could be an issue (they’ve also played Greenwood centrally in pre-season).

Finally, will left-back be an Achilles heel for Lyon? Greenwood has not lived up to Lyon’s (admittedly very lofty) expectations, Selma Bacha is still green, and Amel Majri prefers playing winger. If Bayern manage to pull an upset here, they will have successfully exploited at least one of these three questions.

Players to watch

For Lyon, German No. 10 Marozsán pulls the strings in midfield. Even among all the world-class players she has stood out, as evidenced by her three consecutive French Player of the Year awards since arriving from Frankfurt. A modern playmaker, she leads a world-class midfield unit that probably only Arsenal’s comes close. Also keep an eye out for Bronze, the reigning UEFA Player of the Year and the best right-back in the world right now.

For Bayern, there is no doubt that Schüller is the star brought in to lead the line. With Schüller, Gwinn, and Klara Bühl, Bayern are stockpiling young German talents, and their developing chemistry at the club level will only benefit the German national team in the long run.

Predictions

Quarter-finals

Wolfsburg advance over Glasgow City

Barcelona advance over Atlético Madrid

Arsenal advance over Paris Saint-Germain

Lyon advance over Bayern Munich

Semi-finals

Wolfsburg advance over Barcelona

Lyon advance over Arsenal

Final

Lyon win over Wolfsburg

Make your own predictions in the comment section below or on Twitter!

About Sean Wang 14 Articles
I became a diehard women's soccer fan after catching the epic 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final between Japan and the US at a dive bar in Jordan, Montana. A Berliner since 2017, I can be frequently found shouting in front of the computer while watching OL Reign play in the NWSL, and catching Frauen-Bundesliga actions in Potsdam and on local television. Come talk "Quatsch" with me on Twitter!