UWCL talking points: PSG fight back; can Chelsea win it for Hayes?

Matchday three of the 2023-24 Women’s Champions League group stage is over and we’re at the halfway stage as things start to get really interesting.

Swedish side BK Häcken are the main surprise still at the top of Group D after a 0-0 draw with Chelsea, while Paris FC picked themselves up with a 2-1 win over disappointing Real Madrid to reignite their campaign.

Group C is wide open as Bayern Munich drew with Ajax Amsterdam and Paris Saint-Germain got their first win, 2-1 over Roma. Barcelona cruised to a 6-0 win over Rosengard in Group A, while Benfica claimed a 1-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt that puts them in pole position for second place. Elsewhere, Lyon beat SK Brann 3-1 in Group B, but Slavia Prague and St. Pölten couldn’t close the gap to second place by more than one point as they drew 0-0.

We asked our writers Sophie Lawson, Sam Marsden and Connor O’Halloran to answer some of our burning questions.

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Sophie Lawson: I’m sad we’re going to lose the Champions League group stage moving forward as UEFA pushes to a new “Swiss” format across both men’s and women’s tournaments. We’re only in the third year of the reformatted women’s competition and the group stage has been such a delight since its introduction, with each season only bringing about a fiercer level of competition.

This season has only heightened the twists and turns, with teams seemingly just one result away from putting themselves back into contention. From this round of fixtures, we’ve seen Benfica leapfrog Eintracht Frankfurt; Ajax continue to grind out results with their draw at Bayern Munich; PSG put their first points on the board which has further complicated Group C; and Paris FC claim their first win with underdogs Häcken still in a fantastic position.

It’s not quite “anyone can beat anyone” in the group stage — especially when you look at Slavia Prague’s struggles or how Rosengård have been a step behind — but if you look at the unexpected nature of Group D it’s clear that there are few easy games to be had.

Sam Marsden: As expected, Barcelona and Lyon look way ahead of the rest of the field. After three games, both have three wins, 14 goals scored and just one conceded. If the knockout draw doesn’t get in the way, it is hard to imagine them not meeting the final.

What is interesting, though, is the increased level of competition among the chasing pack. The signs were there with Arsenal and Wolfsburg crashing out in the qualifying stage, with Group C and Group D further highlighting that point now.

Connor O’Halloran: Real Madrid don’t have the same Champions League history as the men in the women’s format, but this season looks like it will be another step back. Since merging with CD Tacón in 2020, Madrid have played in three tournaments. First, they were knocked out 8-3 on aggregate in a Clasico quarterfinal against rivals Barcelona, followed by a third-placed exit in the group stage last season.

This year is a further unwelcomed retreat. Madrid sit bottom of Group D after Thursday’s defeat to Paris FC and have just one point from their three games. This is despite having a squad which involves eight of Spain’s 2023 Women’s World Cup-winning squad such as Olga Carmona, Athenea del Castillo and Ivana Andrés, as well as Golden Girl-nominated Linda Caicedo and Ballon d’Or-shortlisted Hayley Raso.

Nobody expects Madrid to immediately come in and compete for the title, but they should be doing better than this.

Lawson: What we’ve seen from Chelsea so often over the years is an ability to bounce back from losses and attack their next games, but that response wasn’t really there against a very organised Häcken team.

In the 4-1 win against Paris FC last month we saw the Blues find a bit more of their trademark bite in attack, but everything was a little flat against the group’s surprise leaders. I think the romantics out there will want to see Hayes lift the only piece of silverware that has eluded her highly decorated Chelsea team before she takes charge of the USWNT in the summer — although, as she is keen to point out, she was assistant first-team coach to Vic Akers for Arsenal’s historic Champions League-winning side in 2007.

Of course it would be a nice parting gift from her to the Chelsea fans, but even beyond navigating what has turned into a tricky group, the path to the final at San Mamés will be fraught with danger. If the Blues are to do what they have never done before, the football needs to be better than we’ve seen so far.

O’Halloran: Hayes has won everything else at Chelsea and the 2021 final defeat to Barcelona will still hurt; last season’s 2-1 aggregate exit to the Catalans in the semifinals probably does too, when Hayes argued: “The better team lost.”

As Hayes’ farewell season plays out, I wonder whether this Champions League campaign could become a binding or breaking force. Chelsea’s players shouldn’t need any more motivation, but maybe winning it for their beloved coach is it.

Chelsea haven’t been good enough so far and perhaps don’t strike the same fear into opponents as they have in previous years, but the Champions League group stage has never been about that. They’re a hurdle to clear, and so far they are on track … even if Häcken are upstaging them at the top of the group. The Blues will need to get hot at the right time in the knockouts, but maybe this year they will have an added narrative to take that extra step.

Marsden: I don’t think Chelsea have enough to beat Barçelona or Lyon to complete the fairytale farewell for Hayes. However, they are one of a handful teams who could be considered outsiders if they get a favourable draw in the knockout stages.

Key to that will be winning the group so they can avoid Barça and Lyon in the quarterfinal, so Thursday’s draw with Häcken was a setback in that sense.

Of course, to win the competition they will probably have to beat one or both of Barça and Lyon, but a confidence-building quarterfinal win against other opposition would buy them more time before facing one of the big two.

Lawson: With the exception of St. Pölten and Slavia, who really didn’t seize their chance to close the gap to Brann in Group B, the third-placed teams (and even PSG, who are fourth in a tight Group C) are right in the mix.

Ahead of the group stage, many were looking forward to seeing if Paris FC could continue their giant-killing streak after they knocked out both Arsenal and Wolfsburg in the qualifying rounds. Two defeats from two suggested not, but we finally saw some of their best football against Real Madrid on Thursday. It will be a task to qualify ahead of in-form Hacken or Chelsea, but another performance like that next week in Madrid and the top of Group D will be really interesting heading into January.

Barcelona will top Group A and Rosengård are way behind, but next week’s game between Eintracht Frankfurt and Benfica is big. Frankfurt have had a tendency to blow hot and cold over the last few years so it wasn’t a surprise to see them labouring to defeat at the Estádio da Luz. But if they can pick up a win at home then it blows the race for second place wide open.

Group C is where it’s at, though. Two points separate Bayern (1st) from PSG (4th), and it feels like its anyone’s group. Next week, Ajax will back themselves to take more points off Bayern, while Roma will look for revenge on PSG. It’s a group of chaos and I’m sure there will be at least one more twist before it’s over.

Marsden: I’m going for Eintracht Frankfurt. It will be between the German side and Benfica for second place in Group A behind Barça. Benfica edged the meeting between the two teams in Portugal this week, but Frankfurt will fancy their chances with their remaining fixtures.

Their two winnable games against Benfica and Rosengård are both at home, where they were very good in the first half against Barça before eventually succumbing to the power of the Catalan side. It could ultimately come down to Thursday’s game against Benfica at Deutsche Bank Park.

O’Halloran: Everything points to Group C. The final positions for Bayern, Roma, Ajax and PSG can end in a number of ways.

All it will take is a slip up from Bayern, who failed to capitalise on Lea Schüller’s opener in the second minute and drew 1-1 to Ajax at home on Thursday, to dramatically change the table’s outlook. PSG looked out of it after two defeats from their first two, but a win over Roma has opened things up again.

It is anyone’s to win … or lose.

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