Relentless Bonmati leading Barca charge against Lyon

Aitana Bonmati has played a key role in <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Barcelona;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Barcelona</a>'s charge to the women's Champions League final this season (PAU BARRENA)

Once the door swung open for Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmati she walked through it and never looked back, with a hat-trick of women's Champions League triumphs now in her sights.

The Catalans' star playmaker Alexia Putellas suffered a severe knee injury in 2022 while with Spain and Bonmati took the reins from 'La Reina' -- the queen.

The 26-year-old led Barcelona to Champions League glory last year and then Spain to the World Cup, which earned her a first Ballon d'Or.

On Saturday Bonmati is tasked with finding the code to crack record eight-time winners Lyon's safe in Bilbao. Putellas is back after injury but there is no putting Bonmati's genius back in the bottle.

She was replaced by Putellas at half-time of the Copa de la Reina final last weekend with Barcelona leading Real Sociedad by a landslide to keep Bonmati wrapped in cotton wool for the European showdown.

During Putellas' long absence, Bonmati became Barcelona's nerve centre, advancing further up the pitch and taking greater responsibility for goalscoring and creation.

Before she had proven a stylish yet hard-working foil for Putellas, but her explosion since meant Barcelona barely missed the two-time Ballon d'Or winner.

Barca coach Jonatan Giraldez has kept Bonmati in that role and sometimes Putellas operates as a false nine.

"(Bonmati) never gives up, is never defeated, she always wants more," Giraldez told Catalan television this week.

"She is emotionally very strong... I think everything she has achieved is not just because of sporting growth, it is also due to personal growth, of maturity, of herself, of Aitana Bonmati."

Bonmati showed leadership in the semi-final second leg against Chelsea to turn the tie around and send Barcelona to Bilbao.

The Blues earned a 1-0 victory at the Olympic Stadium to consign the Catalans to their first home defeat in five years.

"We'd talked about Chelsea playing like this for me it's playing dirty," complained an unusually bitter Bonmati after the game.

However she and her team-mates knuckled down at Stamford Bridge to ensure Barcelona progressed to the final with a 2-0 victory.

Bonmati scored the opener and then won a penalty which Fridolina Rolfo converted in a player of the match performance.

With five goals and six assists, no player has as many direct goal contributions.

"We did it again, and it wasn't easy because of the first leg result but this team knows how to conquer difficult moments, I'm very proud of this team," said Bonmati.

- 'Something to aspire to' -

Bonmati has always battled against the tide.

"I carry this resilience in my blood," she said after winning the Ballon d'Or, in reference to her parents.

They fought to change Spanish law over naming children so that she could take her mother's surname, Bonmati, first, before her father's -- Conca -- which was previously illegal.

She was the only girl at her first club CD Ribes, alongside hundreds of boys, but more than held her own.

Soon she joined Barcelona and transported herself to and from the club's academy with her parents unable to drive her.

Relentlessly driven to better herself, Bonmati's rise to the top of the game has always seemed a question of not if, but when.

Bonmati and Barcelona were dominant domestically but their work took time to bear fruit in Europe.

Barcelona reached the Champions League final for the first time in 2019 but were thrashed 4-1 by Lyon.

"Playing against Lyon was like holding up a mirror, seeing ourselves and having something to aspire to," Bonmati told AFP shortly before Barcelona's second final defeat by the French giants in 2022.

That 3-1 loss in Turin was more jarring than the first, given Lyon's dominance in the 2010s and Barcelona's development.

The Spanish giants believed themselves finally strong enough to overcome Lyon but were given a rude awakening -- they have lost each of their four encounters.

Two years down the line, Bonmati and her team-mates consider themselves hardier still, given what they have overcome on and off the pitch.

Much of the core of the Barcelona team lived through a protracted battle with the Spanish football federation over conditions, including the debacle involving disgraced former chief Luis Rubiales, and emerged on top -- even though the fight continues.

"We should be more than athletes," said Bonmati after winning the Ballon d'Or last November.

"We should lead by example and keep fighting together for a better, peaceful and equal world."

Away from the external struggles, Bonmati is constantly battling internally too, relentlessly pushing herself on to achieve more -- and then doing it.

Her next target is powering Barcelona to a first ever victory over Lyon.