Tuesday sees the start of the 2023-24 Women’s UEFA Champions League group stage and there are some huge matches to be played.
Although many will expect to see champions Barcelona to make it through, as well as Lyon, the record holders for most titles (8), there could be some surprises along the way and it wouldn’t be the first time in the competition.
So how will it all play out? Sophie Lawson has assessed each group, breaking down the narratives, picking the must-see matches and predicting which teams will advance to the round of 16.
Group A offers some of the same ties from last season’s competition, as Spanish LaLiga champions Barcelona shared a group with both Portugal’s Benfica and Sweden’s Rosengård, who came bottom and are likely to do so again given their league season ends this weekend, on their way to the title.
It also marks a new era as German side Eintracht Frankfurt make their debut in group stage. Long-time fans of women’s football will know that the team used to be 1. FFC Frankfurt and held the record for Champions League titles (4) before Lyon overtook them, but they merged with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2020 and so start afresh.
Although Benfica are growing every season, they’ve understandably struggled to contain the impressive Barcelona in the past, so the fixtures are most likely to decide who goes through with the Catalans.
While Benfica have fallen into a comfortable groove that lets them dominate in Portugal (they have won the last four league titles and have five wins from five games this season), Frankfurt tend to struggle with consistency and this season have three wins from six for a fifth-placed spot in the Frauen-Bundesliga. But if the pieces come together for the Germans they can really put on a show.
This year’s Ballon d’Or winner, there is little more that can be said about Bonmatí. A key part of Barcelona’s midfield who orchestrates and conducts games as she works in harmony with her teammates, the 25-year-old is the heartbeat of the side.
Barcelona are very good at navigating European ties and even though they’ve had a couple of surprises in the last few years, they should finish top of this group.
If Frankfurt can balance out the travel and added games that come with playing in Europe then their quality in the attack might tell, as it did in the first round of qualifying against Juventus when they rode out a storm to win on penalties.
2. Eintracht Frankfurt
Held up as the ugly duckling of this season’s group stage, some have questioned why the likes of Czechia’s Slavia, Austria’s St. Pölten and Norway’s Brann (all league champions) get to be involved when bigger teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Wolfsburg and Juventus (all second and third-place finishers from their respective leagues) do not. The simple answer is that by topping their leagues they ended up in a different path and proceeded to win their qualifiers. And now they have a real chance to go far.
French giants Lyon are an outlier in the group thanks to their remarkable history in Europe and will almost certainly finish top thanks to their squad depth, the timing of fixtures, experience in the competition and good old-fashioned ruthlessness. But the three other ties should be interesting given Slavia’s domestic season ends on Friday and Brann’s on Nov. 18, so they will struggle with fitness.
Both clubs clashed in the group stage last season and there was little to separate them. Mária Mikolajová’s 91st-minute goal was enough to give St. Pölten the win in Prague, before a 1-1 draw in Austria. This time around they will likely be fighting tooth and nail for second place and there is a bit more at stake.
Having made a summer switch from Stade de Reims, Dumornay already looks at home in the Lyon attack and adds more depth to one of the most talented squads in the world. An intelligent midfielder who isn’t shy of getting forward to shoot on goal, the Champions League will be a good chance for Haiti’s World Cup star to show her quality.
Lyon will finish top. They have had to contest with an injury crisis since the start of last season but that won’t stop them.
For the rest, Brann are at a disadvantage with the scheduling as well being relatively new to the competition, while Slavia — who will have to contest all their group-stage matches outside their league season — may just nick it from St. Pölten thanks to their wealth of UCL experience.
2. Slavia Prague
3. St. Pölten
4. SK Brann
This is a box-office group. There are plenty of first-time meetings and clubs with different styles, so experience and self-belief may dictate how it plays out. But given the calibre of the opposition, it’s a fiendish draw for the Netherlands’ Ajax who are expected to struggle through to a last-place finish.
Although Roma vs. PSG and Bayern vs PSG could throw up some interesting results, the match to watch has the two teams in the best form right now. Both seem to understand how their coaches want them to play; there is a fluency to the Italians’ style that is likely to wipe out the benefits of Bayern’s experience in Europe. Roma are six from six in the league, while the German side have won four and drawn two of their games to date.
Kicking us off first in the group, the game is likely to be a battle for dominance on the ball and the winners will need to take their chances. But the return leg on the final matchday could be key.
One of the best goal scorers in women’s football, Chawinga’s loan at PSG from Chinese side Wuhan Jianghan University FC should be enough to remind people of her talent. Single-minded in her pursuit of goals, the Malawi star’s thirst for attacking football will be key for PSG this season as she always offers an option for her teammates.
With their flexible and attractive attacking style, Roma should finish top of the group.
Although Bayern have lost over two legs to PSG on the two occasions they’ve met in Europe (in the quarterfinals of 2016-17 and 2021-22), PSG go into the games in disarray, lacking the confidence and incision of previous incarnations. As long as Bayern can take advantage, they should claim second.
2. Bayern Munich
3. Paris Saint-Germain
4. Ajax Amsterdam
The group has another tie from last year, Chelsea vs. Real Madrid, and the Blues are now the third (of three) Women’s Super League teams who have had to face a team from Paris in the Champions League this season — Arsenal were dispatched by Paris FC in the first round of qualifying, while Man United fell victim to PSG in the second round.
Paris FC have a history in the competition before being absorbed into their current club (some may remember them as FCF Juvisy prior to 2017), but earned their spot with a shock win over last season’s runners-up Wolfsburg in the second round.
With Swedish side Häcken unlikely to challenge, the question is whether Paris FC can bring their best football over two meetings with Chelsea and Real Madrid to sneak second spot.
Perhaps a predictable or boring choice, Chelsea vs. Real Madrid is still key.
The performance from Las Blancas in Madrid to seal a 1-1 draw last season was one of the best they’ve managed so far in the Champions League. As they continue to develop, the Liga F runners up will need to be able to go toe-to-toe with teams like Chelsea if they are to progress. Although missing star midfielder Caroline Weir, there is a depth of talent in the Real Madrid side that should be enough to see them compete with the Blues. And, the scheduling of first and final matchday makes this one an intriguing prospect.
A talented player in a talented team, Nüsken’s prowess and adaptability in midfield has caught the eye already. The Chelsea squad has been built so that every player is one to watch, but the 22-year-old Germany international has impressed since her move from Eintracht Frankfurt this summer.
The unexpected package of the Champions League so far this season, Paris FC will be hoping to pull off a few more surprising results. But, given they were recently thumped 6-1 by Lyon in a league game, the worry is that they won’t be able to match the quality of Chelsea and Real Madrid.
With the Swedish season ending this weekend, Häcken are hamstrung like counterparts Rosengård — they also lost coach Robert Vilahamn to Tottenham, while Renee Slegers left Rosengård to join Arsenal as assistant over the summer. Häcken may well end up on the floor of the group as Chelsea claim top spot and Real Madrid find enough to go through in second.
2. Real Madrid
3. Paris FC
4. BK Häcken