A SEASON TO
Merciless up front and tight at the back, Barcelona have gone from strength to strength in a historic campaign
Alexia Putellas had only one team in mind when she issued a frank warning after Barcelona’s opening match in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Her side had just lost 3-1 away to BIIK-Kazygurt, and Putellas wanted to rattle the Kazakh club ahead of the second leg. “We will show them,” she vowed, “who Barcelona are.” She could just as easily have been addressing the whole of Europe.
Barcelona have left nobody in doubt about their quality. Ending Spain’s long wait for a first UEFA Women’s Champions League finalist, they have scored goals when it mattered, maintained high levels of intensity and shone with their individual skill – an aspect of their game that immediately struck Kheira Hamraoui after signing from Lyon last summer. “The players here are very strong technically,” noted the midfielder, injected into an already gifted squad for her experience and combativeness.
Above all, however, Barcelona have caught the eye with their defensive rigour. The Catalan side will head into the final having not conceded a single goal in 660 minutes of European football, goalkeeper Sandra
Paños stringing together seven consecutive clean sheets behind a defence in which María León and Andrea Pereira have started every game. A fine achievement, particularly after the shock loss in Shymkent that got their campaign under way – and very nearly ended it.
Putellas herself scored the first goal of Barça’s campaign, albeit in her own net as BIIK-Kazygurt shook the visitors late in first-half added time. By the 60th minute, Barcelona were reeling at 3-0 down, the decision to rest Lieke Martens, Vicky Losada, Marta Torrejón and Mariona Caldentey looking increasingly costly. They needed a lifeline and got it, just about, as Toni Duggan squeezed a shot narrowly over the line six minutes later. Hopes of a ‘remontada’ were rekindled.
“We had chances to score and at home we’ll go for it,” said coach Fran Sánchez, who made sure to field his strongest line-up at the Mini Estadi. He was rewarded with a sparkling performance from Dutch dynamo Martens, though it was Patricia Guijarro’s early strike that settled nerves. Torrejón headed in shortly after the break and Martens rounded off the comeback with a sublime solo effort. Relief for the hosts – but also a lesson to be learned. “It’s a warning,” said Sánchez. “All our rivals give 100%.”
Martens had the answer as Barcelona were drawn against Glasgow City in the round of 16. “We have to keep a clean sheet and score goals,” argued the 26-year-old. An obvious suggestion perhaps, but her team delivered, winning the first leg 5-0 after Hamraoui got the ball rolling with her first European strike for Barça. It was the club’s second biggest win in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, and the formula worked again in Scotland, where Duggan’s predatory finishing brought her two goals in a 3-0 success.
IN ON GLORY
Lluís Cortés was the perfect person to step up when Fran Sánchez departed as head coach in January 2019.
Catalan born and raised, the 32-year-old cut his teeth as a coach with the region’s women’s youth sides before taking charge of the senior Catalan team in 2014. Here he developed his coaching philosophy, explaining: “The style of my teams is to have the ball, play at a quick tempo, defend with the ball and press high up the pitch so as to win it back when we lose it.”
Such an approach fits perfectly with the demands at Barça, whom Cortés first joined as a video analyst in 2017, although he has also focused on the psychological side of the game since taking over. “We’ve tried to free the players from pressure, to make them realise they deserve to play for this club and to play with freedom.”
Victory meant a fourth straight quarter-final appearance for the Catalan club. Familiar territory, but there was a fresh note of optimism this time around as the draw mapped out a favourable route to the final. Sure to avoid the likes of Lyon and Wolfsburg until the decider, Barcelona were instead pitched against Norwegian champions LSK Kvinner in the last eight. “We have to go as far as possible, hopefully to the final,” commented forward Aitana Bonmatí. “It doesn’t cost anything to dream, but with this draw it’s possible.”
By the time the quarter-finals rolled around in March, Barcelona had a new coach at the helm. Sánchez was dismissed after a costly domestic draw against Espanyol in January, and his assistant Lluís Cortés took over with silverware on his mind. “As coaches, we have to enjoy every day as if it were the last,” he explained. “I just hope I can stay here many years and win many titles.”
"We've tried to free the players from pressure,
make them realise they deserve to play for this
club and to play with freedom"
His players took another stride towards the biggest prize of all when they built a 3-0 first-leg lead at home to LSK, thanks in part to another Duggan double. Martens’ early strike in Lillestrom then removed any lingering tension, as Barça’s ruthless game management helped them through to only their second ever semi-final. And, banishing memories of their loss to Paris Saint-Germain in 2016/17, they put all their pedigree to work in a 1-0 victory away to Bayern München, Hamraoui’s low shot providing the only goal.
Sara Däbritz struck the crossbar for Bayern in that game, and the German side mounted serious pressure at the Mini Estadi the following week – in front of a club-record crowd of 12,764. Just as it seemed Barça might crack, they scored. Caldentey’s penalty doubled the hosts’ advantage just before the interval, and Paños claimed another clean sheet despite Hamraoui’s red card with 20 nervy minutes remaining. Defiant at one end, merciless at the other, Barcelona had done it.
“The improvement in our defensive play has been great,” enthused Cortés. Putellas, meanwhile, was able to savour having shown everyone who Barcelona are. “We’re taking big steps forward in a very short space of time. I’ve dreamed many times about winning the Champions League. Playing in a final was a dream and I’ve made that a reality – the next challenge is to win it.”