The 2021/22 UEFA Women’s Champions League group stage kicks off on 5 October, a brand new look for the elite club competition in European women’s football.
Moving away from the old straight knockout bracket, the 16 teams that have reached this stage are now guaranteed six matches to set out their stall on the biggest stage.
But who will successfully navigate the group stage and which sides are this season’s contenders?
Here’s how Europe’s nine biggest women’s clubs are expected to do…
Juventus are still a relatively new club. They were formed in 2017 and have dominated domestic women’s football in Italy every season since, but Champions League progress has been tough.
They have never previously been further than the last 32 in the old format of the competition, which technically makes qualifying for a 16-team group stage their best performance yet.
However, the group that Juve have been drawn into will make it hard to get any further this time. Chelsea and Wolfsburg, both finalists within the last two years, are favourites to progress to the quarter-finals ahead of them.
Prediction: Group stage
Real Madrid are brand new to the Women’s Champions League but are well worth their place in the competition after beating Manchester City in the final qualifying round.
Los Blancos have only been going a couple of years, finishing 10th in Spain in 2019/20 while still competing at CD Tacon, but leaping to second behind Barcelona last season.
They have a number of top players, including Kosovare Asllani and Babett Peter, but their aggregate victory over City did come as a shock. Getting through the group stage should be doable but going further than the last eight is a tough ask.
Wolfsburg remain one of the historic giants of Women’s Champions League football. They lifted the trophy in 2013 and 2014 and have played in further finals in 2016, 2018 and 2020 since then.
The squad is still full of international calibre players, among them Pauline Bremer and Germany legend Alexandra Popp. Jill Roord has also joined from Arsenal since last season to strengthen in midfield and make up for the loss of Ingrid Engen to Barcelona.
Quarter-finals of the Champions League should be the minimum expectation. But they aren’t quite the same force they once were and the last four might be out of reach.
Bayern Munich have taken over from Wolfsburg as top dog in Germany, winning the Frauen Bundesliga last season for the first time since 2016 and only the fourth time ever.
The Bavarians also equalled their best ever performance in the Champions League by getting to the last four of the competition, losing to Chelsea at the penultimate hurdle.
Bayern did have the most favourable route to the semis of any of the last four, and it was a similar story the previous time they reached that stage of the competition in 2018/19 as well. They are yet to beat one of Europe’s established giants over two legs and that will be their big test again.
Lyon finally saw their dominance at home and abroad come to an end last season. A stunning run of 14 consecutive French league titles was ended by Paris Saint-Germain, while it also their domestic rivals that halted Lyon’s run of successive Champions League triumphs at five.
Catarina Macario, Danielle van de Donk and Christiane Endler are exceptional players who have arrived in 2021. But Ada Hegerberg has only just returned to training after almost two years out with a knee injury and other established names are starting to age.
Eugenie Le Sommer, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Sarah Bouhaddi, all multiple Champions League winners, are also currently on loan at sister club OL Reign until December, having moved in June. If they return to France that point, they will have played for 18 months non-stop.
It wouldn’t come as a shock to see Lyon challenge again, but the competition is much fiercer than it was and another last eight exit also wouldn’t be a surprise either.
Paris Saint-Germain have been regulars in the latter stages of the Champions League for a number of years and were runners-up to Lyon as losing finalists in both 2015 and 2017. Last season, they did the whole of Europe a favour by finally conquering their long-time rivals.
PSG have lost goalkeeper Christiane Endler to Lyon, which is a blow, but have replaced her with Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Labbe. Kheira Hamraoui is also back at the club, having left in 2016, winning three Champions League titles with Lyon and Barcelona.
The squad is a strong blend of experience, youth and core players reaching or at their peak. Only time will tell if that is enough to go all the way, though.
Still the only English club to be crowned European champions way back in 2007, Arsenal are back in the Champions League this season. They have made an incredible start to the WSL season, already beating title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City within their opening three games.
New manager Jonas Eidevall guided Rosengard to the quarter-finals of last season’s competition and has already made clear his ambition to lift the trophy with the Gunners, who are finally back to near full strength after struggling with injuries for the last three years.
There is arguably no better attacking unit in all of Europe than Vivianne Miedema, Beth Mead, Nikita Parris, Mana Iwabuchi, Katie McCabe and Tobin Heath in terms of both quality and depth. The key will be whether there is enough depth elsewhere in the squad to back that up.
Chelsea became England’s first Champions League finalists in 14 years last season, falling just short of their ultimate goal after getting beaten heavily by Barcelona in a one-sided final.
Emma Hayes, who was an assistant coach when Arsenal won it in 2007, has been working on this vision for close to a decade in charge of the Blues. She has conquered England multiple times over and last season’s set back will only make her even more determined to achieve it.
Chelsea have strengthened their squad since losing last season’s final, adding depth in the shape of Dutch defender Aniek Nouwen and landing generational talent Lauren James from Manchester United. Even a repurposed Jess Carter at centre-back could be seen like a new arrival.
Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr continue to go from strength to strength as a duo, although if Chelsea don’t win the Champions League this season it won’t be because of themselves.
Even if 2022 is a repeat final of 2021 and a closer contest, it is so difficult to look beyond anything other than Barcelona retaining the title they won in such style last season.
European glory wasn’t the pinnacle for Barcelona, it was only the start, and they are well capable of creating a Lyon-like Champions League dynasty over the coming years if they continue on their current trajectory.
The squad didn’t break up after last season’s triumph, it got stronger. Vicky Losada left to join Manchester City for a new challenge, but the former captain was only on the bench for the final against Chelsea and came on after the contest was long since won.
Barça weren’t even at full strength in last season’s final because centre-back Andrea Pereira was suspended, forcing the reshuffle of key midfielder Patri Guijarro into the back four. The spine of the team has also been strengthened since then, with defender Irene Paredes, midfielder Ingrid Engen and forward Fridolina Rolfo all leaving potential Champions League contenders to join them.