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UEFA Women’s Champions League: European powerhouse Lyon’s grip on title is facing its biggest challenge

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In the last decade, Lyon’s dominance in women’s football has been nigh on complete.

Since 2011, the French club has been involved in nine Champions League finals, winning the competition seven times.

Anita Asante, who currently plays for Aston Villa in the Women’s Super League (WSL) and works as a pundit for the UEFA Women’s Champions League (UWCL), explains how Lyon’s ability to continually bring in new talent has been key to success.

“I think they’ve always had that consistency and that continuity,” Asante tells CNN Sport, “no matter who’s coming into the team to play within their style, and they all understand each other very well.”

However, could this year be different?

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Former Arsenal, Chelsea and England player Asante says that while the competition is a lot closer this year, the likes of Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester City will have a tough task to knock Lyon off its pedestal.

“Lyon have the experience, they have the winning mentality, they’ve been there before, they’ve dealt with the pressure,” she says.

“It’s going to take a lot and a special performance from any side to really dethrone them.”

First, Lyon has to negotiate a tricky-looking quarterfinal against French rival Paris Saint-Germain.

PSG currently leads the French league table by one point over Lyon having handed its rival a first league loss in 80 matches in the fall of 2020.

PSG is also the only team to have beaten Lyon so far this season.

“It’s a strong rivalry, two top French sides and lots of players that play on the national team as well for both teams, and they [PSG] will know that they have sort of fallen short of them when they played Lyon, both domestically in the league and within Europe,” says Asante.

“Now they have a greater chance than ever, [and will be] especially confident as well as having beaten them this season so far.”

PSG has had to contend with a recent outbreak of coronavirus cases within the team, which caused its last 16 second leg match against Sparta Prague to be canceled.

The club had to forfeit — meaning an automatic 3-0 loss — but progressed with a 5-3 aggregate victory having won the first leg 5-0.

“I think they’re professionals having been here before, and part of being at the top level of the game is riding obstacles and challenges that aren’t always in your control,” adds Asante.

“You can’t account for those things. It might hinder some of the performance or mentality, but ultimately, I think they’ll just have their eyes on the prize.”

The quarterfinal first leg matches are scheduled for Wednesday, March 24, with the second legs on March 31 and April 1.

Whichever side advances to the semifinals will have its work cut out as another contender awaits — either Manchester City or Barcelona.

The Catalan team made the finals of the UWCL in 2019, eventually losing to Lyon 4-1, and since then has continued to establish itself as a contender on the European stage.

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Bridging the gap

Barcelona has scored 99 goals and conceded just three — and that’s in only 20 games this season. Meanwhile, Manchester City has won 11 consecutive league matches and is showing no sign of slowing down.

City is one of the clubs in the WSL that has had its squads bolstered by American talent coming to play in England this season, with the likes of Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis joining.

“Lavelle and Mewis are winners. They’re proven winners for their national team and that’s the gold standard, and that’s what everyone else is chasing, especially on the national team level,” says Asante.

Lavelle explained when she arrived in England that the UWCL was the competition she was really looking forward to playing in.

“I grew up watching Champions League and I feel like I never thought it was a possibility that I could be competing in Champions League myself,” said Lavelle in an interview with CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.

“So it’s really cool to have this opportunity to do that.”

The WSL’s success this year with new talent has led to increased interest in the league, with Sky Sports and the BBC announcing a record-breaking deal to broadcast matches for the 2021-2022 season.

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On the other side of the competition, last year’s finalist Wolfsburg will take on reigning WSL champion and current league leader Chelsea.

Wolfsburg’s run to the final last year was driven in large part by its attacking presence with players such as Pernille Harder, who moved to Chelsea for a record $413,000 fee at the end of last season.

Recently, the London-based club has been dominating English football and has already won one trophy this season, the FA Continental League Cup.

“I think that Chelsea have a great depth throughout the squad in multiple positions,” explains Asante, who played for Chelsea from 2008-2009 and again from 2018-2020.

“The attacking threat in particular is going to be a concern of any team that’s going to meet them, especially in the sort of form that Fran Kirby is in.”

Chelsea has been building its team over the better part of the last decade with the goal of winning the Champions League. However, a WSL team hasn’t won the title since Arsenal in 2007.

“This is a club that’s been building for this moment over the years and they’ve got into a prominent position where they have got all the little pieces together now,” adds Asante, reflecting on Chelsea’s development.

“But more importantly, I think there’s an actual winning belief that they can go on and win all the trophies domestically as well as Europe.”

In a recent interview with Forbes, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich spoke of the support clubs should give their women’s teams.

The women’s team, Abramovich says, is “a critical part of Chelsea and shapes who we are as a club. I see no reason why clubs wouldn’t want to support women’s football and provide the best possible opportunity for them to succeed.

“For me, this is both about the principle, but, also, women’s football has huge potential. If women’s football received the same level as support as men’s football, the sport would obviously be equally successful on the business side.

“And I think investment pays off. I think their success demonstrates what can be achieved when you dedicate resources and the right leadership. [Manager] Emma Hayes has been remarkable in her work with the team.”

The final quarterfinal will be played between German league leader Bayern Munich and Swedish club FC Rosengard.

Bayern has been impressive in the league this season as it bids to progress to only its second ever UWCL semifinal.

While German clubs have a rich history in the UWCL, winning nine titles since 2002, Bayern has never progressed to the final.

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