Fourth And Goal: Weary Lyon Eye Another UWCL Title

OL Féminin are on the brink of a fourth straight UEFA Women’s Champions League title, a feat unseen in either the men’s or women’s game since Real Madrid swept the first five men’s titles to close out the 1950s. A star-studded showdown with FC Barcelona awaits. But do les Fenottes have enough left in the tank to bring the treble back to Lyon?

With just days to go before the big show, we’re checking in on how the teams got here, key storylines, and players to watch.

“The Hard Is What Makes It Great”

There was a telling moment at the end of a game a few weeks ago. When the final whistle blew, three Lyon players dropped to the ground in the defensive box, spent. The end of the two-leg semifinal slugfest with Chelsea? No. It was a mid-week match against Dijon, D1 Féminine’s eighth-place finisher, a team that hadn’t even competed in the top tier a year earlier–a game that barely merited a second thought when the season schedule was released nine months ago.

The 4-0 win secured OL’s 13th straight D1F title, but it didn’t come easy, one-sided final scoreline aside. In fact, if you’ve watched Lyon over the last several months, you know that very little has come easy. The games have been tighter, the build-ups tenser, and the saves tougher.

It all culimated in a hellish April that put the players through their paces: A decisive title fight with PSG, both Champions League semifinal legs against Chelsea, and the midweek roadtrip to Dijon were all packed into just a 15-day span. Somehow, les Fenottes escaped with 3 wins and a draw, a +10 goal differential, the domestic trophy, and a berth in another Champions League final.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s all been easy for OL, that they have coasted to another successful season. Results can cover all manner of challenges. The headlines will boast of another unbeaten domestic season, the +83 goal differential, and the treble still within reach. They won’t mention that Lyon were either tied or ahead by just a single goal at the half in 9 of 22 league games or that the team scored 15 fewer goals this year than last. They won’t mention the draw against ninth-place FC Fleury, the narrow 1-0 win at home against relegated Lille, or the hold-your-breath Cup semifinal against second-tier Grenoble that was an Ada Hegerberg stoppage time header away from requiring penalties.

It hasn’t been easy, but Lyon have always scraped their way to another victory, another trophy, and another qualification in the end. And so when the match against Dijon wrapped up, Selma Bacha, Jess Fishlock, and Amel Majri picked themselves up off the grass and prepared for the next fight. Bacha and Majri started against Chelsea at Kingsmeadow four days later, and Fishlock played the second half. With that qualification in hand, the team regrouped in time to secure the domestic double with a 3-1 win over Lille in the Coupe de France final.

Another final, another trophy. The psychological edge is so often what sets Lyon apart. There will be time to rest later. It doesn’t have to be easy. To borrow a line from A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.

“We’re In The Endgame Now”

One final test awaits: the Champions League final against FC Barcelona. Les Fenottes will hope to avenge Lyon’s men’s and youth league teams, both of which were sent packing from the Champions League by the Spanish giants. Barcelona’s women, for their part, will hope to ease the pain of their men’s side’s jaw-dropping semifinal collapse against Liverpool, while also becoming the first club to have won both the men’s and women’s Champions League title.

Barcelona’s Path to the Final

The Catalan side enter the final having stormed through the bulk of their Champions League schedule. They opened the campaign with an eyebrow raising 3-1 loss on the road against BIIK Kazygurt (OL had beaten the same Kazakhstan squad 16-0 on aggregate a year earlier). But Barcelona turned the tie around with a 3-0 win at home, and they haven’t allowed a goal since in European competition. They breezed past Glasgow City with 5-0 and 0-3 wins to advance to the quarterfinals, where they beat LSK Kvinner 3-0 and 0-1. In the semifinals, they picked up 1-0 victories in each leg over German runners-up Bayern Munich.

But it’s been more of a struggle domestically for Barcelona. Barça ended the season six points behind Atletico Madrid to finish second in the Primera Division Femenina–their fourth straight season as runners-up. Barcelona actually beat Atletico in both head-to-head league matchups this season, but Atletico picked up every other available point on their schedule. Meanwhile Barça faltered too frequently against lower-ranked competition, digging themselves too deep a hole to overcome with three 0-0 draws (against Levante (3rd), Valencia (8th), and Espanyol (9th)) on top of costly losses to fourth-place Granadilla Tenerife (1-0, on the last day of the season) and 14th-place Sporting de Huelva (2-3 on February 13). Barcelona were also stuck watching the final of the Copa de la Reina from home, having been beaten in the semifinals by their constant nemesis Atletico Madrid.

Lyon’s Path to the Final

Lyon’s path to the Champions League semifinal has been a bit bumpier. After coasting past Avaldsnes (7-0 on aggregate) and Ajax (13-0 on aggregate) in the early rounds, OL drew their own nemesis, Wolfsburg, in the quarterfinals. The German side was eager for revenge after Lyon’s victory in extra time in the 2018 Final, but les Fenottes proved too strong. A 2-1 victory at home kept the tie in doubt at the kickoff of the second leg, but OL’s offense came out in full force in Germany en route to a 4-2 win.

Chelsea was the next hurdle, and history repeated itself as Lyon again picked up a 2-1 win in the first leg at home. Neither of the title holder’s goals were pretty, with Delphine Cascarino scoring from a deflection off Chelsea’s Magda Ericsson, while Amandine Henry glanced a Dzsenifer Marozsan corner into the back of the net. Meanwhile, it took two huge saves from Sarah Bouhaddi–one on a Fran Kirby penalty, the other one-on-one against Maren Mjelde–to preserve the victory, though an Erin Cuthbert stunner gave Chelsea the away goal they were hoping for. Chelsea declared themselves the better side on the night after the match (for what it’s worth, the xG on the evening heavily favored Lyon, per Chris Henderson) and boasted that Lyon’s era of invincibility was over.

A week later, the teams met again in London. Lyon struck first through Eugénie Le Sommer on yet another deflected goal, but the English side quickly equalized off a lovely Ji So-Yun free kick. With tempers flaring–OL managed to earn five yellow cards–Chelsea pushed hard for a second goal, but the Lyon defense and Bouhaddi held firm, earning a bruising 3-2 victory on aggregate to advance to the final.

The teams will meet in Budapest on Saturday, May 18 at 18h00 local time (Noon ET / 9 a.m. PT). Here’s how you can watch.

Key Storylines To Watch

First Time, Long Time

How much does experience matter in the final? We’ll find out, as the two teams enter the match with vastly different backgrounds. And unlike in the men’s game, it’s Barcelona playing the role of plucky upstarts, appearing in their first Champions League final. They have qualified for the tournament every year since 2012, never coming closer to the trophy than a single semifinal appearance in 2016, when they lost to PSG 5-1 on aggregate.

Last season, Barça fell to Lyon in the quarterfinals. In the first leg in France, Dzsenifer Marozsan opened the scoring with a beauty on a fast break off a neat pass from Lucy Bronze. But Barcelona equalized in the second half. Sarah Bouhaddi punched an in-swinging corner off the near post, but Patricia Guijarro was first to it and her header found the back of the net.

With time winding down, Ada Hegerberg banged home the game winner after good work from Shanice van de Sanden down the right side. With the 2-1 advantage secured, a week later, OL put the final nail in the coffin in Spain, winning a tight battle 1-0 with a Le Sommer header that only just snuck across the goalline.

The Barcelona community has rallied brilliantly behind their first-time finalists. Nike unveiled an immense banner to support the squad, while La Liga pushed back the kickoff time for all of its men’s games scheduled for the same day . . . and then pushed it back further accommodate potential extra time or penalties.

This marks just the 3rd final in the past 10 years featuring a team from a country other than France or Germany. Barcelona will hope their arrival on the scene signals a new era for women’s football, with more clubs threatening the Franco-German dominance over the European scene. As big clubs like Barcelona invest in their women’s programs, expect to see increasing diversity among the finalists in the years to come.

Meanwhile, Lyon enter the final as consummate veterans, and they’ll hope to stave off that diversity of winners for at least a while longer. It will be their eighth final, all of them since 2010. After losing on penalties in their first final appearance, the French champs bounced back in a big way, winning the next two with a 2-0 win over Turbine Potsdam in 2011 and a 2-0 win over Frankfurt in 2012. They fell just shy of the threepeat in 2013, losing 1-0 to Wolfsburg on a second half penalty.

OL watched the next two finals from home, but returned to Europe’s biggest stage in 2016. Never wanting to spare to the fans any stress, Lyon required penalties to beat Wolfsburg in 2016 and PSG in 2017. Last year, yet another Lyon-Wolfsburg matchup stretched into extra time. OL conceded first, but hit back with a fury when Wolfsburg lost Alexandra Popp to a second yellow. This time Lyon completed the threepeat with a 4-1 win over their German rivals.

Lyon return every member of last year’s starting XI, and all but one of the 14 players who featured. Camille Abily’s calm veteran presence will be missed, but OL should be well-covered nonetheless. Wendie Renard and Sarah Bouhaddi have appeared in all seven previous finals, and Le Sommer joins them in holding five winners medals.

Red Dead, No Redemption

One familiar face will be absent from Barça’s squad: Kheira Hamraoui, who spent two seasons with Lyon before moving to Spain last summer, will miss the final due to suspension. The French midfielder picked up two yellow cards in the second half of the last match against Bayern to earn a sending off. Hamraoui had been the hero of the first leg, scoring with a powerful blast to give Barça the 1-0 away win.

Hamraoui was known for her long distance rockets during her brief stint in Lyon, but she hasn’t exactly racked up goals for Barcelona this season: two in the Champions League and one in PDF. Still, she makes for an imposing presence in midfield, and Lyon won’t be sorry to see her in the stands. Hamraoui would have been eager to show OL they should have found her more minutes . . . and to show France coach Corinne Diacre that she deserved a spot on the list of 23.

Incredibly, this will be the second Champions League final that Hamraoui will miss due to suspension; she picked up a straight red in the first leg of the 2015 semifinals and watched from the stands as her PSG side fell to Frankfurt in the final.

Treble Yell

With the domestic double already secured, OL will be looking for their third treble in the past four years. The empty space where last year’s Coupe de France trophy would have gone will still sting. But this year, the rain held off until after the Cup final, mercifully, and the decisive win over Lille may have eased the pain of that trophy eluding them in the last edition.

The ability of this team to stay hungry for still more titles after all the success they’ve experienced is perhaps its most impressive quality, and the OL Museum will always be happy to take more hardware. The final will also be special for the newcomers who haven’t hoisted the Champions League trophy yet–Lisa Weiss, Carolin Simon, and Izzy Christiansen, as well as some of the youngsters. Lucy Bronze and Shanice van de Sanden will also be looking to taste the treble for the first time.

Amel, Reste à l’OL

Will this be French winger/left back Amel Majri’s last appearance for Lyon? She is out of contract at the end of this year, and news of an extension has been conspicuously absent. Instead, rumblings grow that Magic Majri will swap shirts next year, heading to Barcelona to reunite with close friend Kheira Hamraoui.

Majri, arguably one of the most underrated players in the game, has been an important weapon on the left side for several seasons, holding down the left back position before moving up to the wing this season. She was absolutely on fire to start the season, carrying the team in the early weeks, but she’s had less of a role to play in recent months. With Selma Bacha looking like the future at left back and Eugénie Le Sommer able to roam the left wing on attack, Majri may not be essential personnel anymore, at least from a tactical perspective.

If she does leave, it won’t be for lack of effort to keep her here from the fan base, which has made its voice heard with loud chants of “Amel, reste à l’OL” at games and a flood of social media posts along the same lines. But the mood is grim as optimism for her return is fading. In a recent interview, Majri pegged the probability of her return at 50-50, but even that seems optimistic. If Majri is inclined to explore a new opportunity in Spain, OL will want to flaunt their superiority over Barcelona one last time. Whether it’s enough to change her mind or just remind her what she’s leaving behind remains to be seen.

Pep Pedros?

A Lyon coach who seems out of his depth tactically and unable to get the best from his talented squad. Where have we heard this story before? It seems impossible that Reynald Pedros could be on the hot seat just months after being named FIFA’s Best Women’s Coach and with the treble still in his grasp. But here we are.

Pedros was an odd hire to begin with, coming to OL with no experience in the women’s game and no facility for English–the one quality Jean-Michel Aulas had insisted he wanted to help attract foreign players to his dominant squad. But Pedros entered the ring and brought home two of three possible trophies in his debut season. The highlight of his first year was undoubtedly the Champions League Final, where his three substitutions were certified game changers–though more cynical voices have wondered whether he could have made those changes earlier and perhaps secured the win in regulation.

This year, there have been few signature performances from the team, where their full might was on display. The 5-0 home win over PSG is the obvious exception, but the season has felt full of frustrating underperformances, and it’s fair to wonder if Pedros bears the blame. It seemed to take him too long to adjust to Dzsenifer Marozsan’s absence in the early part of the season, with OL opting to ignore the middle of the field in favor of deep balls down the wings. But the crosses into the box weren’t breaking through tight defensive blocs, and the chances didn’t quite match the dominant possession stats.

OL’s struggles against inferior competition this season haven’t gone unnoticed either. The team could have been badly punished for dropping points at Fleury as Pedros’s lineup rotation left his squad without enough offensive punch on the field. His personnel decisions in that match raised eyebrows outside the lockerroom–and perhaps inside as well. It would be easy to write that match off as a fluke if it hadn’t so clearly reflected similar struggles against Lille and Grenoble in the weeks leading up to the surprise draw.

Most recently, Pedros appeared thoroughly outcoached by Emma Hayes in the Champions League semifinal. Hayes was vocal about the time and energy she put in the preparing her Chelsea side to take on the title holders, even inviting the press into a long explanatory session of her game plan. It showed on the field too, as Chelsea gave Lyon everything they could handle, particularly in the second leg. Some good bounces and heroic performances from Sarah Bouhaddi were all that stood between Pedros and some serious embarrassment.

Could this really be the end for Pedros? Aulas gave him a cautious vote of confidence after Lyon secured its berth in the final, and it might be harsh to dismiss a manager who has brought home (at least) four trophies in two years. But let’s not forget that Aulas showed Pedros’s predecessor Gerard Prêcheur the door on the heels of back-to-back trebles and eight of nine trophies in his three seasons. Pedros will want to use this final to remind his boss that he’s the right hand to steer this illustrious ship.

Potential Game Changers

Eugénie Le Sommer

She may be routinely overlooked when it comes to individual accolades, but make no mistake about it, Eugénie Le Sommer is crucial to Lyon’s success. The club has struggled to score when the French forward has been unavailable to partner up front with Ada Hegerberg; she didn’t start in the draw against Fleury or the narrow league win over Lille, and she was subbed off early when OL only barely snuck by Grenoble in the French Cup.

Le Sommer is a versatile player, who is often just as effective a provider as a goalscorer. She added 5 assists to her 19 goals across D1F and UWCL play this season, good for more than a goal or assist every 90 minutes. And, yeah, she can score a banger when she wants to:

With 6 goals in 7 Champions League appearances already this season, Le Sommer is chasing history. Her 42 career Champions League goals have her tied for 5th place all-time. A goal in the final will propel her into a tie with Lyon legend Camille Abily, and a brace would give her sole possession of 4th place. She’ll look to be a difference maker again this year after scoring the game winner in last year’s final.

One more reason to keep your eye on Le Sommer: Saturday will be her 30th birthday. What better way to celebrate than with the trophy, winner’s medal, and plenty of confetti at the end of 90 minutes?

Sandra Panos

It’s been 660 minutes since Barcelona last conceded in the Champions League. If you remember last year’s quarterfinal between Lyon and Barça, you have a pretty good guess why that is. Barcelona goalkeeper Sandra Panos’s immense performance between the sticks nearly carried her side past OL a season ago, frustrating Hegerberg, Le Sommer, and co. with a series of increasingly impossible saves.

Panos made such an impression that Lyon reportedly kicked the tires on signing her last summer. But Barça acted quickly to stake their claim to the Spanish national team’s number one, extending her contract through 2021.

Panos appears to have carried her excellent form into this season. Barcelona conceded just 15 goals in 30 PDF matches this season, comfortably the lowest in the league. She’s a big reason why Barcelona picked up two wins against Bayern Munich in the semifinals, despite losing the xG battle in both matches, turning away 10 shots over the two legs.

If Lyon are to walk away with the win, they’ll want to put one past Panos early before she has a chance to settle in and generate more of the magic that nearly stymied OL a year ago.

Jess Fishlock

This is what she came for. When Jess Fishlock made the move to Lyon last fall on loan from the NWSL’s Reign FC, she was vocal about the fact that she wanted the chance to play in the Champions League final. The Welsh midfielder has a Champions League medal to her name, but she left Frankfurt to return to the NWSL ahead of the final.

Now she looks likely to play a significant role in the title match. Fishlock has managed to crack perhaps the world’s most daunting starting XI, earning starts in virtually all of Lyon’s most important matches in the second half of the season: including matchups with PSG in D1F and the Coupe de France, the Coupe de France final, both quarterfinal legs against Wolfsburg, and the first leg of the semifinal against Chelsea.

With the impact she’s made during her loan spell, it’s no surprise that she is reportedly in discussions over a possible return to OL, much to the distress of Reign fans, who could certainly use her presence to give their struggling side a boost. The Tacoma-based club have assured fans that Fishlock should be back in action in the NWSL before the end of the month.

For now, Fishlock will look to bring her competitiveness, relentless ball pursuit, and slick passing into one last game for Lyon. She’ll want one more medal to toss into that suitcase before she heads back to the States.

Toni Duggan

Barcelona spreads their scoring around so well that it’s hard to know who to fear most. With all due respect to Alexia Putellas and Lieke Martens, who have scored important goals this year, and Asisat Oshoala, who is closing out the season on a hot streak, Barcelona’s big game go-to is English forward Toni Duggan.

Duggan has scored five goals in Champions League action this season, including the goal that turned the tide against Kazygurt in the opening round and braces against Glasgow City and LSK Kvinner. She’s come up clutch in PDF play as well, with goals in both matches against eventual champions Atletico and a brace against Copa de la Reina winners Real Sociedad. The highlight, of course, will be the goal she scored in front of a record 60,000 fans at the Wanda Metroplitano in March.

Duggan has adapted well to the Spanish-style of play since making the move from Manchester City in 2017. She’ll be looking for revenge against former club-mate and national teammate Lucy Bronze after Bronze and Lyon bounced Barcelona from European competition in the players’ first year abroad.

Sarah Bouhaddi

No one knows how to pick a moment like Sarah Bouhaddi. The French goalkeeper has a knack for turning the Champions League final into her marquis moment each season, and Lyon hope this one will be no different.

In 2016, OL trailed in a penalty shootout against Wolfsburg before Bouhaddi turned things around with two straight saves. She upped the ante a year later in the penalty shootout against PSG. After making an early save to prevent a momentum swing after Le Sommer’s miss, Bouhaddi called game, scoring the winning penalty herself and proving that she really can do it all. Incredibly, it wasn’t even her first time scoring a penalty in the Champions League final–no, really–she also found the back of the net in a losing effort in the club’s first final appearance in 2010.

Last year, the legend grew again. Bouhaddi and Bronze collided in second half stoppage time, and Bouhaddi emerged with a broken hand. She stayed in the game, in obvious pain, scooping up balls in the box with just one hand in extra time.

With the game winding to a close, Bouhaddi was forced to make a save with the injured hand on a hard shot from Ewa Pajor to make sure the German side had no hope of a late comeback. If it feels like we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about a goalkeeper gutting out extra time in the Champions League final with a broken hand, it’s because we don’t. That’s the stuff of legends.

Bouhaddi has been called upon far more often than usual this season, and she’s been up to challenge. Her three highlight reel saves against Chelsea were decisive in bringing OL back to the final. And she’s added good stops against Dijon, PSG, and Lille in recent months as well. It all bodes well for another signature performance for the French shot-stopper.

***

Before the final, make sure you check out the most recent episode of the Lyon Offside Podcast, where we discuss the psychological battle between the two sides. Plus, head to our Twitter page to vote in our daily polls leading up to the match.

Follow Lyon Offside (@LyonOffside) and Arianna (@AScavs) on Twitter!

Photos via Dominique Mallen (@Dommal38)

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