UWCL Preview #1: Glasgow City v VfL Wolfsburg

The UEFA Women’s Champions League is fast approaching and we could not be more excited to see our favourite teams in action. A rearranged tournament, now changed from the two-leg, six-week competition to a Final 8 to be decided in the span of ten days and at a bubble, neutral location in the north of Spain, means that there is much to discuss about what to expect and what to look forward to. Originally, we were going to have one massive preview. Then two. The more we write, the more it has become apparent that every game deserves its own post.

There is a lot to unpack about these match ups, and the talking points have been evolving almost weekly since before the pandemic started. The circumstances have changed so radically since teams first qualified for the last 8 that all conjecture back in January was irrelevant by April, and now in August we are looking at a very different type of competition. So let’s have a look at the overall consequences of the current format, before analysing the first of the matches, Glasgow City v Wolfsburg.

The UEFA Women’s Champions League, for those new to the game, is a home-and-away qualifying round competition throughout the tournament. The draw is very important: avoiding the top teams in the early rounds is essential in order to make it far into the tournament. Ask Juventus, for example, the Serie A champion, who due to their lack of historical ranking in the competition were not seeded in the first draw of the competition this year, and landed FC Barcelona, last year’s runners-up. Needless to say, they did not go far in the tournament.

Heading into the quarterfinals, the new format makes the games more even, and benefits the lower ranked team, for once. It has turned into a sort of FA Cup style, in fact. The FC Barcelona v Atlético de Madrid tie might have been heavily leaning towards the blaugranes, given their fortress at the Johan Cruyff stadium, but now, in a neutral venue and a one off game, it opens the door for Atlético to sneak in. And much like in that matchup, Glasgow City, Arsenal, and FC Bayern can think of upsetting their rivals.

The other main feature of this Final 8 is the rosters. When UEFA announced the rescheduling of the competition, they determined that any players signed after March should not be allowed to compete in the tournament, to preserve its integrity, and theoretically, to make it seem as fair as it would have been to play the games in April and May. The practical issue is that short contracts are the norm, and not the exception, in women’s football, and that player movement, particularly given the consequences of the pandemic, is inevitable year on year. They had to backflip on that decision in order for some clubs to be able to actually field a team.

If not allowing new players to be registered to play in the competition was their way of hoping the competition would not be adulterated any further, the consequences of playing with last year’s rosters became evident soon. The most farcical case was that of Atlético, who, due to mismanagement of their goalkeeper policy last year, were about to be forced to play with their academy keeper, following the departures of Lola Gallardo and Sari Van Veenendaal. Arsenal was also going to suffer the consequences of high player turnout, and for some time Olympique Lyonnais was looking at entering the competition without Hegerberg, Mbock (both injured), Bouhaddi, Marozsán (rumoured to leave the club, but now re-signed long extensions), Bronze and Greenwood (due to depart, but who have signed a two-month extension to play the comp, and then move on, potentially back to England).

The only team who will not benefit from this player inclusion will be FC Barcelona, who have yet to announce any signings this year, and who have only lost Stefanie Van der Gragt. They decided to keep their block from last year, and why wouldn’t you. With a fit forward line boasting Caroline Graham Hansen, Asisat Oshoala, Lieke Martens and Jenni Hermoso, who needs anything else?

But does this mean that the good old favourites OL, Wolfsburg, FCB, are not favourites? No, not really. But perhaps this time, it might be just a little bit easier to upset Olympique… Or maybe this is just wishful thinking. But let’s get into the action, and review the Friday night clash.

Glasgow City v VfL Wolfsburg: Let the lasses dream of wolves

When: Friday 21st August, 18:30 CET.
Where: Anoeta Stadium, San Sebastián.
How to watch? BBC Alba have the rights in the UK. Wolfsburg have also announced that the game will be shown on their YouTube channel – geoblocking permitting.

Perhaps the most one-sided match-up of the quarterfinals, women’s only club Glasgow City stare at the barrel of facing 2018 finalists and German league and cup winners Wolfsburg in the opening game. But they have a City behind them: to get them to Spain, Glasgow have been selling donation tickets at the price point it would have cost to see Pernille Harder and co live at Petershill Park. It is certainly a loss for the club the fact that the new format will not allow them to host Wolfsburg at home, because, despite of the result, what a night of European football it would have been. Glasgow City are heading to Spain thanks to the donation of supporter James Anderson, whose contribution will cover the costs of the team travelling to Spain.

In a completely parallel world, Wolfsburg are heading to the Basque Country in a unique position: they played competitive football until the beginning of July, took the best of ten days off, and have been at training since. Along with FC Bayern, they might be the fittest team in the competition, based solely on the fact that they had to finish the Bundesliga in June and will have more competitive baggage over the last few months compared to the Spanish and French teams.

Who’s new?

In addition to this game experience, Wolfsburg have also moved well in the transfer window. They lost Gunnarsdottir in the midfield, but have landed Germany’s next defensive gun in Lena Oberdorf and the firepower of Pauline Bremer. They have also signed Polish goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek from PSG, certainly an upgrade in that area despite the young talent displayed by Friederike Abt, who has played all games following the Corona-break.

The key move, however, was to retain superstar Pernille Harder. There was some speculation in January that Chelsea could activate the early buy out clause in Harder’s contract and pay a pretty penny (and yet at a reduced fee) to engage the Dane’s services. The rumour mill was fuelled by Chelsea’s manager Emma Hayes alluding to never having yet worked with a Danish person, and by Harder’s stay in London to spend time with her partner Magda Eriksson during the Bundesliga extended winter break. An interview also circulated in which both Harder and Eriksson mentioned their wish to play together in the near future. The Dane, however, has decided to meet the conditions of her contract and remain with the Wölfinnen until at least 2021, which is great news for next season, but more specially for Wolfsburg’s chances of lifting the trophy in the Basque Country later this month.

The German machine is so well oiled and comes with such competitive preparation that anything less than reaching the final will be a disappointment. On the other side, they will (hopefully) find a side hanging on hope. Glasgow City’s is the story of the triumph against adversity, and if anyone could pull off the surprise, it is them. No one will beat them in enthusiasm.

Whilst City’s signings cannot compare with the German powerhouse acquisitions, they have not been unnoticed. They landed their big fish barely weeks ago: South African captain and most capped player, Janine Van Wyk, chose the Scottish club to continue her extensive career and provide key world-stage experience to the club. They have also added American players Zaneta Wyne and Krystyna Freda to their roster. On the other hand, they have lost some players to Celtic and Rangers, amongst them Sam Kerr. There are now no Sam Kerrs remaining in the UWCL.

The prediction: Wolfsburg to win 3-0

It is hard to see how City can upset the Wölfinnen, even in a one-game, winner-takes-all scenario. Wolfsburg have the experience and the quality to make this an easy game, and it is difficult to imagine any other outcome other than a multigoal victory. They just have far too many weapons: if Harder doesn’t get you, Popp will. And if City focus on those two, then Ewa Pajor (or Huth, or Engen, or Rolfo, etc) will strike.

For Glasgow City, it is all about enjoying the experience, and bringing that into their 2020 campaign, if it does get underway, to continue the domestic dominance they have enjoyed for over a decade now. We will be rooting for them, in spite of everything: there is nothing we love more than an underdog.

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