Women’s Champions League R32 2019/20 Preview
Background image: Steffen Prößdorf, CC BY-SA 4.0
The Champions League Round of 32? If you think that sounds wrong, you may be more sexist than you thought. The women do things a little differently than the men. The group stage takes place in the qualification stage. Ten groups of four clubs play a single round-robin rather than home and away. The winners join the 22 direct qualifiers in the tournament proper, all with their eyes set on mighty Olympique Lyonnais, defending champions again and six-time winners overall.
OL are dead-cert favourites in their first matchup against Ryazan-VDV. The Russians rarely qualify and never progress beyond the R32, losing out to FC Rosengard in their two attempts, the first in 2014 then again in 2018. A French side is a change of pace but did it have to be the juggernauts? Jean-Luc Vasseur can call upon most of the best female footballers of this generation from both France and abroad. Ada Hegerberg, Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris, Alex Greenwood, Shanice van de Sanden, Dzsenifer Marozsan, Saki Kumagai and Kadeisha Buchanan are a who's who of foreign stars. Eugenie Le Sommer, Wendi Renard, Amadine Henry and Sarah Bouhaddi headline the homegrown crowd.
Despite Kosovo's strong second-half showing in the men's Euro qualifiers this week, you can expect Frauen-Bundesliga powerhouse Wolfsburg to beat up on KFF Mitrovica too. In a country barely six years old and still not recognised by at least ten European nations, Mitrovica made history by coming this far, beating other Kosovan clubs, male and female, to the punch as the first native side to compete in the finals of a European tournament.
The Germans boast Pernille Harder, last year’s top scorer in the competition with eight goals. The Dane found herself outnumbered when she came up against Lyon in last season's quarterfinal. OL doubled up Wolfsburg in both legs, advancing 6-3 on aggregate. After three successive domestic titles, Stephan Lerch's Wolfinnen want to bring down bigger game.
Manchester City reached consecutive semi-finals between 2016-18 before last year’s disappointing first-round exit. Manager Nick Cushing itches to set the record straight; returning City to the late rounds and perhaps beating Pep Guardiola to the punch by taking it all. FF Lugano 1976 is their first obstacle. This season, the Sky Blues won't take anyone lightly. The Swiss side finished runners-up in their domestic league last term and don't have a strong continental tradition. At 31, City and Lionesses' captain Steph Houghton is running out of opportunities to earn a winners medal.
Her former side, defending FA WSL champions Arsenal, aren't such clear favourites. They're drawn into what you might call a tie of death with Fiorentina. Janni Arnth was on the Gunners roster last year but didn’t make a contribution sufficient to earn a medal in North London. With less than a full calendar year there, she moved to Serie A’s second-place finishers to challenge Juventus in Italy. Arnth also gets the chance to swipe at her former club. As WSL champions Arsenal is bound by duty to glorify England but they've struggled as mightily as the men in Europe's premier club competition.
Toni Duggan also waves dual flags, one for her native England, the other for her new home, Spain. She joined Atletico Madrid this summer from Barcelona. The Rojiblancos featured in three of the last four Champions Leagues without escaping the R16. Their first match-up comes against Spartak Subotica. The Serbian side should be considered master qualifiers. They consistently win their domestic league then progress to the R32 without conceding a goal.
The first legs take place today and tomorrow while the men travel from their international sides to their clubs. It's the best time to try your first taste of women's football if you've not before. You'll be back for the return legs in a fortnight. Enjoy.