UWCL talking points: French domination, Final Four confirmed

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The 2023-24 Women’s Champions League is down to the final four. With the quarterfinals seeded for group winners vs. group runners-up, it was no massive surprise to see the bigger teams in Europe seal their place in the latter stages.

Eight-time winners Lyon cruised past Benfica 6-2 on aggregate, while defending champions Barcelona overcame SK Brann 5-2.

Then we saw Chelsea punish Ajax for a poor first-leg display and come away with a 4-1 win, with Paris Saint-Germain taking the final spot with a 5-1 win over Swedish surprise package BK Häcken

We asked our writers Sophie Lawson, Julien Laurens and Emily Keogh to answer some of our burning questions from the quarterfinals.

Stream on ESPN+: NWSL, LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)


Semifinals:

April 20-21: Barcelona vs. Chelsea and Lyon vs. Paris Saint-Germain
April 27-28: Chelsea vs. Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain vs. Lyon


1. What stood out for you most across the two quarterfinal legs?

Lawson: Across the 180 minutes of each two-legged tie, the disparity was clear and you can pinpoint where each match got away from the unseeded teams. However, if you consider that Benfica, SK Brann, Ajax and BK Häcken were all expected to finish third or fourth in their respective groups, and that all four were venturing into new territory in the knockouts with weaker squads on paper than their seasoned opposition, the way all four “minnows” conducted themselves was admirable.

None of the four shied away from the size of the task ahead of them and all found a way to play their game, while managing to score against some of Europe’s most stubborn defences.

Laurens: The inevitability of the results and the domination of the four best teams in Europe right now was clear. Chelsea, Barcelona, PSG and Lyon are ahead of everyone else in the competition and they showed why in these quarterfinals.

With seven wins and one draw (Chelsea drew 1-1 with Ajax after winning the first leg 3-0), it was a walk in the park and there was nothing that the unseeded teams could do.

Keogh: What stood out to me was how controlled and direct Ajax and SK Brann were sometimes. Facing the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona, both would have been aware that they were up against two of the toughest of opponents in the quarterfinals, yet demonstrated a sheer fight and determination that left fans wondering if this would be the moment that an underdog became victorious. While that story will have to wait for another day, the excitement they brought to the knockouts stood out.

2. Which underdog team impressed you the most?

Keogh: It would have to be Ajax. Making it out Group C ahead of Bayern Munich and Roma was not easy and the Dutch side had multiple chances to open the scoring against Chelsea in the quarterfinal first leg, but lacked clinical finishing. They will have learned a lot from the way Chelsea showed patience to weather the storm and cope with the pressure.

Going into the second leg 3-0 down, it would have been easy for such a young squad to have felt discouraged knowing they needed a miracle to qualify for the semifinals. Ajax did not make it easy for Chelsea though, and had consistent chances that caught the Blues off guard and finished with a respectable 1-1 draw — a mammoth result for them.

Compared to where Ajax were in the qualifiers last season, the growth and development they have shown since means they are now one of Europe’s best teams.

Lawson: Benfica probably managed to control more of their tie against Lyon than the other underdogs did in theirs. The Portuguese champions were fired up for both legs, but between tiring and being unable to cope with Lyon’s substitutions they faded quickly in both games.

Ajax showed real character in their second leg draw vs. Chelsea to correct a lot of what went wrong in their home game, while Häcken were better at home and aside from two lapses that cost them a 2-1 defeat to PSG, handled their first game well.

And, even though the tie against Barcelona eventually got away from Brann, midfielder Signe Gaupset continued to impress and goalkeeper Aurora Mikalsen put in one of the performances of her career in the first leg.

Laurens: All the favorites got through pretty comfortably. However, Benfica were most impressive against Lyon. They took the lead at home in the first leg and were in front until past the hour mark. Despite losing 2-1 in the first game, they were level at 1-1 at the break in the second leg and finished the match with more possession and more passes completed than the French champions, which never happens to Lyon.

Despite a 6-2 defeat on aggregate, the Portuguese champions showed their progress and left the competition with their heads held high.

3. After two French teams made the semis… is France the best place for women’s football in Europe?

Laurens: Jean-Michel Aulas, the former Lyon owner who did so much for the women’s game on all fronts and is now the head of women’s football in France, said last week that he wanted to make the Division 1 Féminine (D1F) the best league in the world. It is not there yet and there is a lot of work to be done to overtake England’s Women’s Super League and America’s NWSL, but the progress is clear.

Lyon and PSG being in the Champions League semifinals shows it. They will face each other in the semifinals, which means that France are guaranteed a club in the final. And with the third force of French football Paris FC emerging to knock out the giants of Arsenal and Wolfsburg in the Champions League qualifiers earlier this season, the dynamic is super positive.

Lawson: In a word: non. Lyon have been a powerhouse of the women’s game for close to two decades and in that time the landscape has evolved so much. The French giants have helped map the path into the professional world, but there are other teams that can offer players the same standards that made Lyon so cutting edge for so long, and the home league is full of disparity.

As Jules points out, Aulas is keen to push the envelope with D1F, potentially breaking the Lyon/PSG duopoly and ushering in an era of professionality across the division. But as it stands today, even with that juggernaut of women’s football in Lyon leading the charge, D1F isn’t a destination league.

Keogh: On paper, France certainly look to be leading the pack in the Champions League, at least this season. But last season, there were two English teams in the semifinals. The UWCL is an ever-changing climate.

Lyon have been such a powerhouse for so long, while PSG have tried to mimic the success of the men’s team to little effect. One thing is for certain: there will be a French team in the final. Looking at the bigger picture, with Paris FC’s triumph to reach the group stage, France is certainly up there when it comes to development and history in the competition. However, the structural integrity of the league and sustainability of the recent growth will have to be judged in the coming seasons.

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