Women’s Champions League: where the semi-finals will be won and lost

<span>From left: Tabitha Chawinga, <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Caroline Graham Hansen;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Caroline Graham Hansen</a>, <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Lauren James;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Lauren James</a> and <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Kadidiatou Diani;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Kadidiatou Diani</a> are all set to feature this weekend.</span><span>Composite: Getty, Shutterstock</span>

This weekend brings the first legs of the Women’s Champions League semi-finals and I am particularly intrigued to see how my old club Chelsea approach their tie against Barcelona. This is the third encounter between the clubs in the space of four seasons and it will be interesting to see what Chelsea’s coaching staff have learned from those previous games – the 2021 final and 2023 semi-final, which both ended in defeat.

To draw on my recollections of playing in those matches, in 2021 we went into the final with a high press and the attitude that ‘we’re going to do our thing’. But we all know how that worked out – within 20 minutes we’d conceded three times and by half-time it was 4-0, which is how that final finished.

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Last year, as a consequence, we took a more cautious approach. We changed to a back three and tried to minimise their chances on goal and I think we did it quite well though, in the process, we sacrificed our own attacking game to a degree. In our 1-0 first-leg loss at home, we had an xG of only 0.35. Hopefully, this time Chelsea can find the perfect blend and play their own game while also constricting Barcelona.

Of course, it won’t be easy as Barcelona – like the Spain national team – are going like a train right now. In my first column in February, I spoke about playing against Spain with Sweden and the challenge of stopping their play in the half-spaces between the centre-back and full-back, which they are so good at exploiting through Aitana Bonmatí. This time I’d like to single out another player – namely, the Barcelona right winger Caroline Graham Hansen, who is having an incredible season. She scored in both legs against Chelsea last season and has been even better this year with 17 goals and 16 assists in the Liga F. With Barcelona functioning so well as a team centrally, they can get the ball to her in the wide spaces and give her the one v one situations in which she flourishes. Therefore, Chelsea must keep a player tight to her and also to try to stop the supply line of passes out wide.

As for my old team, just like for last season’s semi-final, they look certain to be without Millie Bright, who has only just returned to training after her knee injury. She will be missed, as will Sam Kerr, the leader of the front line. Yet if you’re looking for positives, one potential upside is that it might not be easy for Barcelona to analyse Chelsea. They have used a lot of players this season with different combinations in the back line and midfield and this unpredictability could be an asset. A case in point is Lauren James, who could play as centre-forward, the No 10 or in the wide areas. Lauren has been injury-free this season and has played at a consistently high level and it’s not easy for opponents to set up to stop her as she can float around and perform in different areas.

Another possible positive for Chelsea is that Barcelona are without their injured centre-back Mapi León. She was very good against us last year, both in stopping attacks and building the play. We had a plan to exploit their high line and get Sam in behind her and Irene Paredes, the other centre-back. However, the pair of them read it well and dropped back to deny Sam the space.

When you look at Barcelona’s unbeaten run in their domestic competitions, it contrasts with Chelsea’s recent domestic form with their defeats in the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-final. I’d argue that, playing in England, Chelsea face bigger tests more often yet Barcelona, to their credit, never seem to let their standards drop and whenever a big test comes around, they show up. If I have to make a prediction, therefore, my head tells me Barcelona are the best club side in the world right now and so will edge it. Of course, my heart is hoping for Chelsea and although they’ve have had those recent setbacks, a huge characteristic of their success under Emma Hayes has been their ability to bounce back from disappointments and produce a performance when it matters most.

As for the other, all-French, semi-final between Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, I would have made Lyon clear favourites a few months ago but not any longer. I actually scored Bayern’s winner at PSG in the group stage in November but I have been impressed by how they have gelled as a team since then. Watching their quarter-final against Häcken, I saw a settled, solid side who have found a way to really capitalise on the speed of winger Tabitha Chawinga.

Before our two games against them with Bayern, we looked at their threat on the left side with both Chawinga and full-back Sakina Karchaoui, who gets over a lot of crosses. What I like about Chawinga is that she’s a forward who, with her individual quality, speed and strength, can make something out of nothing. At Bayern we experienced that in our 2-2 draw with PSG in Munich in December when with her speed, she intercepted a backpass which our goalkeeper had looked the favourite to reach.

She also scored when PSG drew 1-1 in Lyon in their most recent league meeting in February and with Marie-Antoinette Katoto alongside her, it’s clear PSG have a strong attacking threat. At the same time, though, I consider Lyon a more complete team. It’s true they’ve not yet faced a serious test in the competition but they have more than 11 world-class players. And I can speak from recent personal experience as my Sweden team lost 1-0 last week to a France side including several of Lyon’s best players. At centre-back Wendie Renard was really solid against us and underlined her set-piece threat once again by scoring the winning goal. Alongside her, Griedge Mbock now looks back to her best after injury.

Up front, meanwhile, I faced Kadidiatou Diani, who is the Champions League’s leading scorer with seven goals. Seeing her up close, I could sense she was in good shape. When you play an attacker who’s in form, things just seem to happen for them and I recall one incident in particular where, without producing a fantastic dribble, she was still able to get the ball away from several of our players. She is another player who can create something out of nothing and could have a key role, especially with Eugénie Le Sommer missing after suffering a knee injury in that same game against Sweden.

Like Chelsea and Barcelona, Lyon are unbeaten in this Champions League campaign, they tend to get the better of PSG in their domestic competition and I expect they’ll do so again over these two legs. That said, I really do think any of these four semi-finalists have the quality to go on and win the trophy. Whereas the quarter-final ties each had a clear favourite, this time anything could happen. I hope as many people as possible tune in as we could be in for a treat with two dramatic ties full of twists and turns.

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