Emma Hayes is the last manager of an English club left standing in the Women’s Champions League, which, given the group stages are only just kicking off this week, makes difficult reading for Jonas Eidevall and Marc Skinner. While Chelsea and Hayes go again in their quest to win a first European honour, in what is their final season together, Arsenal, last year’s semi-finalists, are already out. As are Manchester United, Chelsea’s closest challengers last season.
Yet Arsenal and United were not even the biggest casualties of the Women’s Champions League’s notoriously tricky qualifying process. Last season’s beaten finalists Wolfsburg, the German giants and two-time European champions, are already out as well. Paris FC were responsible for the exits of both Arsenal and Wolfsburg, who played each other in last season’s semi-finals but this year fell victims to the dreaded ‘league path’, criticism of which has reignited the debate around the tournament’s format.
Skinner was particularly angry. His United side finished runner-up to Chelsea in both the Women’s Super League and FA Cup but their season was a success as they celebrated their first-ever Champions League qualification. Yet, in qualifying, United were drawn against Paris Saint-Germain, perennial contenders in the knockout stages but also runners-up in France, and were beaten over two legs. United’s European adventure lasted two games but Skinner insisted they “deserved” a longer run.
“There are teams going through [to the group stage] that are not good enough,” he said after United’s 3-1 defeat by PSG at the Parc des Princes. “Our standard is better than that standard, and it’s crazy that we have to play PSG at this qualifying round, crazy. It needs to be something that’s addressed.”
Perhaps Skinner had a point. There is an argument that this season’s Champions League would be stronger if Wolfsburg, Arsenal, Manchester United and Juventus, who were another big name to fall in qualifying, were among the 16 teams in the group stages. As major clubs with large fan bases and talented squads, they have the potential to drive the growth of the competition, as Arsenal showed when they hosted Wolfsburg in front of a sold-out Emirates in last season’s semi-finals.
But the Manchester United manager was also accused of being disrespectful after suggesting clubs who won their domestic leagues did not deserve to be in the Champions League. It is particularly harsh on those sides like Brann from Norway and FC Rosengard from Sweden, not to mention Ajax of the Netherlands, Portugal’s Benfica, the Czech Republic’s Slavia Prague and Austria’s St Polten, who all did what Manchester United could not do and become league champions.
Their spaces within the Champions League and route into it should be protected. As a 16-team tournament, one of the key differences between the Women’s Champions League and the 32-team men’s tournament is the greater proportional spread of countries within the competition. While the teams in this year’s Women’s Champions League represent 11 different European countries, the men’s Champions League features just 15 – despite having a field that is twice the size.
That in itself should be one of the selling points of the Women’s Champions League, and is something many will say the men’s competition has lost. Through that, it has created an environment where only a small handful of teams from three or four countries have a chance of winning the competition and has widened the financial inequalities between leagues and clubs across the continent.
Though some would argue that the Women’s Champions League has already reached that point. In the past two seasons since the introduction of a group stage, the eight quarter-finalists have been made up of teams from Spain, England, Germany, France and Italy. Those sides from elsewhere have not been close to qualifying from the group phase in that time, either.
But that is also an argument for the Women’s Champions League continuing to offer domestic title winners a separate route into the competition, even with the potential exclusion of runners-up like Wolfsburg and Manchester United. Such representation can have a positive effect within those domestic competitions, which would be increased across the continent if a proportional spread remains when the Champions League does eventually expand in size.
Yet for stakeholders like streaming platform Dazn, who hold the exclusive rights for the Women’s Champions League, the early exits of Wolfsburg, Arsenal, Manchester United and Juventus would have been a blow to their viewership figures. There is a chance that the group stages are a procession for defending champions Barcelona and Lyon, while Chelsea and Bayern Munich’s draw looks a little tougher.
Barcelona are the team to beat, and the Spanish champions will hope their title defence is less dramatic than last season’s final, when they had to come from two goals down to defeat Wolfsburg. They remain the outstanding team in the competition, with Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati its best player and her fellow Spain star Salma Paralluelo expected to take another step up this season after her breakout campaign last year.
As for Chelsea, the Champions League has been the only trophy to elude the club under Hayes. For all the debate around the Women’s Champions League format, there is no debate that there could not be a better way for the 47-year-old to sign off as Chelsea manager than the Blues becoming the first English team to win a European title since Arsenal in 2007.