Three years ago, Barcelona were humbled in Budapest by a strong and athletic Lyon side powered by more than a decade of investment. By the half-hour it was 4-0, with Ada Hegerberg’s 17-minute hat-trick stealing the show. A late consolation goal by the substitute Asisat Oshoala would do little to ease the bruising. It was the Spanish side’s first Champions League final but Lyon’s sixth European title, their fourth won consecutively, and they added a seventh the following year.
As Barcelona players, with tear-stained faces, stopped to speak to the waiting media there was a feeling that the standard they needed to aspire to had been emphatically set. It was thrilling then last summer to see Barcelona dismantle Chelsea with an eerily familiar ruthlessness to lift the trophy for the first time.
That 4-0 defeat of Emma Hayes’s side in Gothenburg lifted the pressure on a club that had set conquering Europe as the number one goal. On Saturday, against Lyon in Turin, they have the chance in another final not only to exorcise the ghost of 2019 but to shift the narrative from it having been a crushing defeat to a moment of learning.
“For every team that has ambition and goals, when you lose a game you go back to the drawing board and ask yourself questions about why you lost the game, what happened, what went wrong,” said the Barcelona forward Oshoala.
“We lost to Lyon three years ago in the final in 2019, yes, but it was also a good defeat for us. It helped us open our eyes and see what we could improve as a team. We needed to play more together, we needed to stay together more, we needed to improve on our defensive activities, we needed to be faster – there were a whole lot of things that went wrong in the game.”
The defender Irene Paredes, who joined Barcelona from Paris Saint-Germain last summer having finally pipped a dominant Lyon to the Division 1 title, said that “everyone made a change” at Barcelona after that 2019 final. “They trained more in quantity and quality. Also, a lot of the players are the same and that’s really good because you have the same players, with a lot of talent, and now with a lot of experience. Losing that way helps you be better; you understand what you need to do. Physically as well they have grown a lot.”
Talk of a power shift at the top of European women’s football after Barcelona’s trophy win last summer has frustrated Lyon, long-time investors in the women’s game.
“There was women’s football before Barcelona, and it was played here for years,” Hegerberg told L’Équipe pointedly before Lyon’s semi-final defeat of PSG last month. “We have to win again to regain our place in world football.”
Oshoala is not of the mind that a shift has taken place and goes as far as describing Barcelona as underdogs. “Lyon is the team to beat in Europe,” she said. “They’re one of the powerhouses of women’s football in Europe. It’s not like we’re out for revenge [for the 2019 final] but we want to put on a better show. We lost 4-1 the last time against them and we don’t want the same to happen again. We want people to enjoy football. We want people to have fun. Football is about entertainment. Of course, we want to win, but the most important thing is you want to show the world that you’ve improved, and that you are a better team from the team they saw three years ago.”
Paredes’s understanding of Lyon could be part of the key to unlocking them. “I played against Lyon many, many times,” she said. “It’s one of the best clubs in the world, so it’s going to be really, really difficult, but my experience of course counts. I have already talked with my teammates to tell them the things that maybe they don’t know. I will try to use that.”
For Lyon, who ended last season without a trophy for the first time in 16 years, there is a real statement to be made about their status in world football. The 14-times Division 1 winners are five points clear of PSG at the top with two games to play and on Saturday will have a chance to reclaim Europe’s biggest crown after a swift transitional season.
With the Champions League broadcaster Dazn, which shows fixtures on its YouTube channel from the group stage on, having sublicensed the rights to the final to TV broadcasters across the globe, including ITV in the UK, TF1 in France and TV3 in Spain, interest in the final everyone hoped for, between the seven-times winners and holders, is sky high.
For the first time, accommodation anywhere near the ground in the host city of a Women’s Champions League final is hard to come by and expensive. Previously, tickets were predominantly sold to locals rather than travelling fans. Now, Barcelona and Lyon have to put on a show worthy of the stage and hype.