Champions League semi-final preview: Having two English clubs in last four should be celebrated – but knockout football isn’t perfect yardstick for judging quality of WSL

From injuries to howlers and downright bad luck, there are too many performance-related variables to view English club football through the prism of European cup competition glory, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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For the first time since the 2017/18 season, two English sides have made it to the semi-finals of the Women’s Champions League. The five-year wait has been perplexing as English club football has developed within a league structure to be one of the very best in the world. Yet residual anxieties about the ability of teams to compete with the creme de la creme of Europe have remained. The underlying fear has been that what if England have created a very competitive league because all of the teams are not very good.

Of course the reality is more complex than that. Whilst the WSL is undeniably one of, if not, the best in Europe in terms of competitiveness and quality with English teams becoming a first choice destination for the world’s best players, it is hard to say that England has only ever developed one truly outstanding club team in the way that France managed with Lyon, Germany with Wolfsburg and Spain with Barcelona. In some ways that is arguably a positive, with, until Chelsea’s recent dominance, the WSL changing hands on a much more regular basis than other leagues. But it is clear that whilst the wait goes on for a follow up to Arsenal’s 2007 win, there will still be a question mark over how good English club football truly is.

If either Chelsea or Arsenal were to finally end that wait this season, they will have to get over some pretty tricky hurdles first.

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For Arsenal, this is a case of the availability of their players as opposed to the actual ability of their team. There is no question that a fully-fit Arsenal side would give Wolfsburg a run for their money, and in a much more convincing manner than they managed last year at the quarter-final stage. Yet with injuries continuing to mount, and Leah Williamson set to be another long-term absentee with a ruptured ACL, beating a full-strength Wolfsburg team over two legs will take some doing.

That said, Arsenal at their best this season have developed a never-say-die attitude, the kind that can flourish when teams feel like everything is going against them. Comeback wins against Chelsea in the Continental Cup final, Bayern Munich in the UWCL quarter-finals and Manchester City in the league have highlighted that under Jonas Eidevall they’re a team who just don’t know when they’re done. The loss to Manchester United means a WSL title is probably out of their reach, which might make them all the more fired up for the games against Wolfsburg.

If Arsenal personified the backs-against-the-wall mentality in March, Chelsea took it to a whole new level against Lyon, with Maren Mjelde sending the tie to penalties with the final kick of the game. However, in Barcelona they are facing a team who has arguably been the best in Europe over the past three seasons even if they do only have one Champions League trophy to show for it. Infamously won in a game that was humiliating for Chelsea playing in their first and only UWCL final, the Blues will have to banish any remaining mental demons and find a level that truthfully they have not reached this season.

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They have their own absentees — Pernille Harder could be a welcome return in these fixtures but Millie Bright’s injury has left a long shadow over Chelsea’s defence. But even beyond that Emma Hayes’ side have not looked quite themselves this season. They have not let that stop them reaching both domestic cup finals and being the favourite to win the league, but they are missing a bit of the swagger we have been used to. They remain unpredictable with more than enough quality players to cause any team problems. To have any chance of beating Barcelona though, they will have to play to their very ceiling without any errors (forced or unforced) and a healthy dose of luck.

Once you see all the variables laid out, it is a reminder of how random success in knockout football can be. Obviously great teams do often win and win well. But injuries at unfortunate times, in-game decisions or simply tactical factors on the day can often serve to see one team progressing over another. Ironically, Chelsea’s journey to the UWCL final in 2020/21 was a great example. They played some fantastic football at points but they also heavily rode their luck against Atletico Madrid, Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich.

All of this should serve as a reminder that whilst it is exciting to see English teams playing in the latter stages of the UWCL, it is not a perfect measure of the quality of English club football. The quality of teams did not suddenly diminish in the intervening years since the last time this happened. Presumably at some point in the near distant future, we will even see a team collect a second English UWCL trophy. Maybe we will even see it this year. For now, though, let’s just enjoy both teams trying to upset the odds.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

Our journalism is supported by Foudys as part of its commitment to backing female and non-binary football writers.

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