Statement Champions League performances from Arsenal and Chelsea against French foes can help salvage reputation of WSL teams in Europe

Neither English side have started the domestic season convincingly, but they’ll need to get their act together fast if they are to change the perception that they’re a level below their European counterparts while in action on the biggest stage this week, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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The Women’s Super League has long touted itself as one of, if not the, best leagues in the world. Whether in terms of big-name recruitment, salaries, or competitiveness, the WSL sees itself as a leader when it comes to women’s club football. Yet it has been clear for a while that WSL teams are still falling short when it comes to the ultimate proof of quality – the Women’s Champions League.

Arsenal remain the only English side to have ever won the Champions League, way back in 2007, and since that time there has been only one solitary English appearance in the final: Chelsea’s humiliating loss to Barcelona in 2020/21. In that time, Lyon have obviously dominated the competition, but Barcelona have also established themselves as terrifying opponents despite having only professionalised in 2015 – the same year as Chelsea.

There is a sense that despite the relative competitiveness of the WSL, all three of Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City are simply a level below their European counterparts.

One potential argument is that the competitiveness of the league is a distraction for English clubs. Certainly no WSL side is as dominant as Barcelona is in Spain, where they won all 30 of their matches last season, conceding only 11 goals in the process. Lyon, similarly, went unbeaten for their win in France, whilst Wolfsburg lost only once in Germany. Yet at the same time, Chelsea have won the past three WSL titles, by slim margins admittedly, but there have been more varied winners of league titles in recent history in France and Germany than there have been in England.

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Instead perhaps the WSL simply appears more competitive because the level of the best English teams is not as high as the rest of Europe. Early looks at this WSL season would suggest that could be the case.

Arsenal have won three from three in the WSL, two very comfortably and one slightly less so. But their qualifying double-header against Ajax revealed a team who are still susceptible to being pressed by more physical and energetic opponents, a problem that led to their UWCL exit last year at the hands of Wolfsburg. Injuries to Leah Williamson and Rafaelle also already leaves them patching up a defence only a month into the season.

Chelsea meanwhile have been less than convincing, having conceded four goals in their first four games, with the opening day loss against Liverpool coming as a particular shock. Sam Kerr is currently recording her lowest goals and assists per 90 as at any time at the club, with their attack looking like it still might be on its summer holiday.

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Unfortunately for Arsenal and Chelsea, there is little time to iron out their problems as they have both been drawn in extremely difficult Champions League groups. Arsenal will face Lyon, Juventus, and FC Zurich whilst Chelsea have to make it past Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, and Vllaznia. Neither will have an easy ride with both going away to France this week to begin their campaign.

This new group stage format of the Champions League can be painfully unforgiving, as Chelsea found out last year when they crashed out of the competition from a group made up of Juventus, Wolfsburg, and Servette. It was arguably the toughest group available (after all, Wolfsburg made light work of Arsenal in the quarter-finals) but there is no question that Chelsea made their own bed when it came to the individual errors which saw them pick up only three wins from a possible six.

Making a slow start can let the pressure pile up and both sides will want to show that they are teams to be feared within the group stages. Arsenal are fortunate that Lyon have even more injuries than they do, with Griedge Mbock a long-term absentee in defence along with Catarina Macario and Ellie Carpenter. Former Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg is also unavailable to truly stress test Arsenal’s new-look defence.

Chelsea will have to beware the threat of Kadidiatou Diani, left, while Lyon, right, are a big test for Arsenal Images: @PSG_Feminines/@OLfeminin

Chelsea meanwhile have previous with PSG, having knocked them out of the 2018/19 Champions League in the quarter-finals. The Parisians have made headlines for their off-pitch dramas, but they are also still figuring out their on-pitch team, giving Chelsea the opportunity to make a statement victory early on in the group stage.

It is likely that neither Emma Hayes nor Jonas Eidevall would admit that they are concerned about the implication of their teams’ performances on the assessment of English club football. Both will believe they have the quality to win the competition, even if the reality is that either of them managing it would come as a surprise based on their recent performances. Indeed, they could point to Manchester City’s failure to make the group stages for the second season in a row as being even more damaging than their own exits from the competition.

But the reality is that for each year that English teams disappoint in this competition, more eyes will instead turn to the other leagues in Europe. The very best players want to compete in the biggest competitions; will they still be as interested in coming to England if they feel their teams won’t make it past the quarter-final point? For Arsenal and Chelsea, statement performances in France would be an impressive way to try and turn around this impression.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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