The curtains have been brought down on the 2021/2022 UEFA Women’s Champions League edition after a topsy-turvy final which saw French giants Olympique Lyon reclaim their throne at the expense of Barcelona, winners of last season’s edition, following a 3-1 victory.
The Catalan side was a heavy favourite heading into this final after a superlative season in which they won 43 of their 45 games with 211 goals scored in all competitions.
Yet, the Spanish juggernaut could not deliver a second straight European title in front of the 12,000 Barcelona fans that filled up the Allianz Stadium, home to Juventus.
Instead, Lyon registered a statement win to secure their eighth Women’s Champions League title in 11 seasons.
“Lyon is a team that always wants to be the best of the best,” midfielder Danielle van de Donk said to the Times of Malta following her club’s triumph in Turin
“Against Barcelona, we showed that we are the best. It is true that last season we failed to win the main competitions but this year we stepped up to win in France and in Europe.”
While a new champion has not been declared this season, with Lyon having already won seven titles before last Saturday, a new era has been forged in female football following the inaugural edition of the new format of this European club competition for women’s teams in the 2021-22 season.
UEFA revamped the tournament with a new 16-team group stage which involves four groups of four with the best eight teams – four group winners and four second-placed teams – progressing to the knockout stages.
In the meantime, UEFA has also changed the qualifying route to the proper competition with two rounds in both the Champions Path – which involves the Maltese representative – and the League Path.
This allowed the Women’s Champions League to start having a structure close to that of their men’s counterparts, allowing for more interesting matchups to happen while providing the teams an insurance of at least six games at the highest level in European football – with a home and away round.
Apart from pitting the athletes against each other at an elite level, the new format served to engage more with the general public and raise awareness about the quality of the women’s game across Europe.
According to a report published by UEFA, the average crowd across 48 games in the rounds of 32 and 16 was over 1,732 in the 2019-20 season.
In this season’s edition, the mean figure over the same number of matches was almost double at 3,381, despite some COVID restrictions across the Old Continent.
That includes the 18,344 at the Parc des Princes for Paris Saint-Germain vs Real Madrid and a Swiss record of 12,782 at Servette against Chelsea, 2020-21 runners-up.
For Lyon’s van de Donk, the new format was also beneficial for her team’s journey towards their eighth European success.
“The competition was a bit harder in this format but at the same time it was very interesting for us because we got to play more games,” the Netherlands midfielder said.
“When you get to play a lot of games together, you continue to improve your team chemistry and that is one of the key factors that allowed us to win the Champions League.”
Having more games increased the interest in this competition and several teams made sure to capitalise on this wave of enthusiasm by opening the doors of the men’s stadiums to the women teams, such as the Emirates Stadium for Arsenal, Allianz Stadium for Juventus and most of all, the Camp Nou for Barcelona.
The Catalan side broke the record of the world’s largest attendance for a women’s team in two consecutive games – 91,533 for Barcelona vs Real Madrid and 91,648 for Barcelona vs Wolfsburg.
On the other hand, there can always be a room for improvement for a format that has just been implemented this season.
While she feels that this revamp is what the competition needed, Italy goalkeeper Laura Giuliani believes that it is important that the Champions League expands to allow more teams to participate in the group stages.
“There is an issue related to the qualification to the group stage because they play just two games and they risk to have their European campaign already over,” Giuliani, a special guest at the UEFA Queens of Football exhibition on Saturday, told the Times of Malta.
“If these teams are allowed to participate in the proper competition, it increases the chance of having outsiders to compete for the ultimate prize and not the usual suspects.”
A reference is also made to the Italian teams who are not guaranteed a place in the group stage as Italy is ranked outside the top six member associations according to the UEFA coefficients.
This means that next season, both Juventus and Roma will have to start their European journey from Round 1, starting on August 18.
At the same time, though, Giuliani has welcomed the final of the Women’s Champions League in Italy with open arms as it coincides with the official announcement that the Serie A Femminile will turn professional as from the upcoming campaign.
“We are preparing for this transition because a lot of things will change,” Giuliani explained.
“Becoming professionals is a destination, because we strived to be in this position. However, it is also a starting step to continue to make upgrades in our movement.
It will be a year of transition and we have to be open-minded and patient to tolerate all the changes.”