Women’s Champions League Final Preview: Can Barca take one more step?

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmati, rear, celebrates with Fridolina Rolfo, front, during the Women's Champions League semifinal, second leg, soccer match between FC Barcelona and Chelsea FC at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, April 27, 2023. (AP Photo)

VfL Wolfsburg Women and Barcelona Femeni are set to square off in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final on Saturday — and there is no shortage of subplots.

Barca is looking to get its glory back after losing to Lyon in the final last year, while Wolfsburg conquered a tough Arsenal squad to earn a chance to capture its first title in almost a decade.

One team has dominated play in Spain for the better part of 12 years, finishing first in eight of the last 12 seasons, while the German side’s struggles saw them lose out on the league title on the final matchday of the season after winning the Frauen-Bundesliga in 2021-22.

It won’t be the first time these teams have met, and both are looking for some sort of redemption when they play in Eindhoven, the Netherlands at 10 a.m. ET / 7 a.m. PT.

Head-to-head history

Barcelona and Wolfsburg have met five times in the Champions League, but never in the final. In the quarterfinal and semifinal stages where they have met, Wolfsburg holds a 4-1 upper hand. The clubs last met in April 2022 with Wolfsburg winning 2-0, Wolfsburg has held Barcelona scoreless four times across meetings.

Wolfsburg ruined Barcelona’s 2020 UWCL campaign by beating the Spanish side in the semifinal, while Barcelona did the same last season, beating Wolfsburg on aggregate to reach the final.

Barca’s almost perfect record

Barcelona captured the Liga F title after winning a 61st match in a row, making them champions in April with four games left to play in their season. The year prior, Barca became the first team in Spain’s topflight to achieve a perfect campaign with 30 wins in 30 matches. However, in the final game of the season, Barca fell to Madrid CFF 2-1, its first league loss in nearly two years.

Winning the treble last year of the league, the Copa de la Reina and the Supercup, Barcelona now enters its third UWCL final in a row and fourth in five years. The Catalan club dominated Chelsea 4-0 in 2021 to become the first team from Spain to win the title.

Barca’s only loss in UWCL play this season came from Bayern Munich, who beat Barcelona 3-1 in December 2022. It was Barcelona’s first loss since falling in the 2022 Champions League final.

Redemption from Lyon

Despite league success and overall domination from the Spanish side, Barca hasn’t been able to get past Lyon. The French side beat Barcelona 4-1 in 2019, and then again last season winning 3-1 in the final. Lyon has won six of the last seven UWCL titles and eight overall.

Barcelona won’t have to face off against Lyon again due to English champion Chelsea beating Lyon on penalties after the clubs were tied 2-2 on aggregate in the quarterfinals. Barcelona then beat Chelsea 2-1 on aggregate.

Barcelona also has the added hope of a full return of two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, who is still adjusting off the bench but scored in Barcelona’s final game of the season. Defender and England national standout Lucy Bronze and forward Fridolina Rolfö, a former Wolfsburg player, both are hopeful to return after missing time due to knee injuries.

Injuries aside, one of Barca’s top producers is Aitana Bonmatí, who leads the Champions League with seven assists and has scored five times in Champions League play, tied for second most in the competition. Another playmaker from Barca to keep an eye on is Caroline Graham Hansen, a former Wolfsburg player who scored both goals in Barcelona’s 2-1 semi-final win over Chelsea.

Patri Guijarro, Keira Walsh, and Ingrid Syrstad Engen round out a midfield that can neatly and efficiently move and pass the ball up field in the traditional tiki-taka Barca way as their roster boasts some of the best depth in the women’s game.

Wolfsburg’s roster knows former glory

Despite losing all three of the last UWCL finals they have played in – all to Lyon – Wolfsburg became the first German side to defend its title, winning the Champions League in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. But the team has yet to see a title since.

Striker Alexandra Popp was part of the “She-Wolves” who lifted the Champions League trophy in 2013 and 2014. Even at 32 years old, Popp led the German league in scoring with 16 goals this season and will be making her seventh Champions League appearance.

Fellow forward Ewa Pajor is the Champions League’s leading scorer with eight goals in the competition and has been a Champions League runner-up with the club three times on top of multiple Frauen-Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal Frauen wins.

Just four starters from the 2020 Champions League runner-up team remain, but Wolfsburg has clearly found out how to stop Barca’s midfield in the past and can use the same tactics Lyon has in their triumphs.

Bouncing back after league struggles

Wolfsburg started off its season hot, going undefeated for the first half, but three losses saw the team end the season in second place — just two points behind rivals Bayern Munich.

Losses to Bayern, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim sank Wolfsburg’s title hopes, though they still managed some hardware glory in a 4-1 win over Freiburg for the DFB-Pokal Women title. Popp and veteran defender and Women’s Euro champion Dominque Janssen managed to get on the scoresheet in that contest.

The German side also stunned the Gunners in the 119th minute, after former Gunner Jill Roord scored the first equalizer in the second leg for Wolfsburg before Popp scored the go-ahead goal that Jen Beattie would match and send the game to extra time.

Wolfsburg managed to suffocate the Gunners and control the game before racing into the counter-attack or scoring off of set-piece routines. Sveindis Jonsdottir, who scored in the first leg of the semifinal, can be just as powerful as Pajor or Popp offensively.

Barcelona is the heavy favourite to win due to its league and Champions League dominance over the past few seasons, but it would not be wise to count out the Germans in the Champions League final.

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