English women’s football 'exploding' after week of Champions League drama

Chelsea players celebrate their penalty shootout win over Lyon in the Women's Champions League - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Chelsea players celebrate their penalty shootout win over Lyon in the Women's Champions League - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

When the head coach of the most successful team in European women’s football, Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor, says the English game is “exploding”, you know something exceptional is happening at the elite end of the sport in this country,

And if England winning last summer’s European Championship lit the main fuse, it is the unprecedented four-way title race in the Women’s Super League, coupled with the midweek box-office drama in the Women’s Champions League, that have applied fresh accelerant to this season’s boom.

Chelsea’s 128th-minute equaliser and subsequent victory on penalties over defending European champions Lyon saw them join Arsenal in the last four of the Champions League, meaning that two English clubs will be involved in the semi-finals for the first time since 2018. More importantly, both WSL teams pulled it off in front of sizeable home crowds at their respective men’s team’s grounds. Arsenal also set a new attendance record, of 21,307, for a Women’s Champions League match staged in England as they fought back to eliminate Bayern Munich with the help of a wonder strike from Frida Maanum.

"How brilliant was that? I’m so happy for English football, both teams are through,” said Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, who was keen to praise their neighbours as well as her own side. “What a performance from Arsenal.”

Conversely, Lyon’s exit – and Paris Saint-Germain’s aggregate defeat by Arsenal’s upcoming semi-final opponents Wolfsburg – meant there will be no French side in the semi-finals for the first time in nine years. The landscape of the European women’s game looked so different back then, before many of the major men’s brands invested, with Birmingham City, Swedish club Tyreso and German team Turbine Potsdam in the last four with Wolfsburg. That exemplifies how much the Women’s Champions League has changed and how dominant eight-time winners Lyon have been in the modern era.

Bompastor, when asked about the comparative strength of the English and French women’s games following her side’s exit on Thursday, replied: “I’ve watched all these quarter-finals. I very much enjoyed Arsenal’s performance last night. I feel they’ve got a really good chance, certainly of getting to the final.

“Chelsea, they’re an effective side, they’re very good in the transitions and turnovers, they’re comfortable defending. In the two ties, I wouldn’t say that by any means they were head and shoulders above us, certainly not, but obviously at a club like Lyon we’ll take a moment to analyse it in the cold light of day.

“You can say English football is on the up, almost like it’s exploding on the scene. But we’ll keep working hard, taking the positives for French football – we’re still going to be moving forward and trying to win titles. When we don’t win we’ll look at it pertinently and calmly but we’re still trying to win.”

Barcelona, who will face Chelsea in the last four, still appear most likely to win the Champions League this season but even the Spanish club’s success offers the English game some positivity, with Lionesses Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh both key members of the side that have won all 23 of their league games so far this term, scoring 99 goals and conceding just five.

Barcelona’s dominance of their domestic league also contrasts to the WSL, however; in the English top flight four teams are firmly in the title race.

Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall, speaking ahead of his team hosting title rivals Manchester City on Sunday, said the strength of the English league is like nothing else in Europe, adding: “Manchester United and Manchester City have played incredibly well, and they also have the quality to go extremely far in Europe. And to speak of only four teams might be a mistake [because of] the football Aston Villa is producing.

“It’s great for the league. This is what no other European country will have at this moment, to have a league with so much competition, so much drama and so much entertainment. That can be a driving force for financial investment to get the best players in Europe coming here to play.”

By the end of this season, the single best club in Europe might not be English but, with the Lionesses unbeaten in nearly two years and with a World Cup on the horizon, there is plenty of cause for optimism.

Before then, the Women’s Champions League two-legged semi-finals will each take place over two weekends at the end of April. Arsenal will first travel to Wolfsburg while Chelsea host Barcelona, on the weekend of April 22. Then Chelsea will travel to Camp Nou on the weekend of April 29, with Arsenal hosting Wolfsburg at the Emirates on Bank Holiday Monday, May 1. The north Londoners sold more than 10,000 tickets in less than 48 hours.