By John Burn-Murdoch.
Not many people are aware of this – despite my best efforts – but this week London plays host to not one, but two Champions League finals. All eyes have been on Manchester United’s upcoming clash with Barcelona for some time now, and this attention will only heighten in the coming days, but it is tonight’s clash at Craven Cottage that I have been looking forward to for the past few weeks.
At 8pm the clash between French champions Olympique Lyon and their German counterparts Turbine Potsdam will get underway and the destination of the last piece of major silverware to be contested before the Women’s World Cup kicks off next month will be decided.
Last season’s corresponding fixture saw the same two sides line up against one another and it was Potsdam who took the spoils, holding their nerve to claim the narrowest of victories after taking the penalty shoot-out 7-6 following a goalless 120 minutes.
This time around Patrice Lair’s Lyon side will no doubt be eager to exact their revenge, and after a near flawless domestic campaign the French side stand every chance of doing just that. With one game remaining in the Division 1 Féminine, Les Fenottes have been crowned national champions, having won every one of their 21 fixtures to date, amassing a stellar record of scored 101, conceded 5 along the way. This is Lyon’s fifth title in a row and with their superiority in France is beyond any doubt, tonight provided an opportunity to go one better and take their place at the pinnacle of women’s club football throughout Europe.
Opponents Potsdam will go level with compatriots Frankfurt in having lifted the trophy three times if they prevail this evening, and have enjoyed s similar domestic success to Lyon, finishing atop the twelve team league by a solitary point and in doing so marking their third successive Bundesliga crown. Having lost to title rivals Frankfurt in the final of the domestic cup, Bernd Schröder’s side have let slip the opportunity to tilt at a treble, but a victory tonight would conclude and excellent season nevertheless.
Both sides boast squads studded with experienced internationals and for someone who is relatively new to the elite women’s game such as myself, it would be difficult to pick out the key protagonists without fear of misrepresentation. For this reason I have enlisted the help of women’s football aficionado Gareth Llewellyn (@gci_ls) who pointed me in the direction of some of the stars particularly worth watching at Craven Cottage.
As evidenced by their league form, Lyon are a side who prided themselves on attacking excellence, and one of their main threats in this department will be Eugénie Le Sommer, who finished in second place in the league goalscoring charts on 13. Aged just 22, Le Sommer has proven to be a prodigious talent and has already passed 30 caps forFrance, notching nine goals along the way. Generally operating just off a central striker, she joined Lyon from fellow Division 1 side Briochin last year and has scored 22 goals from 27 appearances this season in all competitions.
Alongside Le Sommer in Lyon’s vanguard will be Swedish international Lotta Schelin, Schelin lies in joint second place in the Champions League scoring charts this season and Lyon will look to take advantage of her excellent movement up front as they seek to break down Potsdam’s defence. Comfortable either as a winger or a striker, Schelin will be deployed as the latter at Craven Cottage, but her versatility and spatial awareness make her a real threat when the ball is played behind the back line. Preferring to cut in off the left á la Thierry Henry, Schelin has put many of Lyon’s European opponents to the sword with this combination of pace, movement and an excellent right foot, and having put two past Arsenal in the semi-finals, will be keen to bag the goals she needs to overhaul Duisburg’s Inka Grings as the tournament’s leading scorer by the end of the night.
The third of Lyon’s key players is Camille Abily, a gifted creative midfielder who is currently in her second spell atLyon. Leading the assist charts for Division 1 Féminine, Abily’s vision and interplay will be of concern to Potsdam, and the 26 year-old is certainly not afraid to take a shot herself, with eleven league goals to her name from the current campaign. Having enjoyed successful spells in America’s Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) over recent years, Amily is one of Lyon’s most accomplished players, and her performance will be integral to their successes this evening.
For Potsdam, one name which even I recognise is Fatmire Bajramaj. Kosovo-born Bajramaj has emerged as of one of the stars of the German national side in recent years and since joining Potsdam two years ago her performances have been nothing short of outstanding. Such is the level of her ability that Frankfurt, the biggest club in the women’s Bundesliga, have recently agreed to sign her for a record fee in German women’s football, meaning that tonight’s match represents her last opportunity to shine in a Potsdam shirt. A superbly gifted footballer and one of the leading talents in her generation, Bajramaj typically operates as a winger but is comfortable anywhere in the final third. In terms of her style of play and eye for goal she bears striking similarities to Cristiano Ronaldo and is certainly not averse to the occasional piece of extravagant footwork. Unless Lyon can manage to shackle the Potsdam number ten, they could be sent on their way by another virtuoso performance from Bajramaj tonight.
Potsdam’s top scorer, Anja Mittag, is another whom Lyon will have to watch closely at Craven Cottage and the German international is one of those with a chance of taking the title of top scorer if she has a profitable outing tonight. With 23 goals to her name in all competitions this season, Mittag has made a name for herself as an excellent finisher at club level and also weighs in with a good number of assists.
Completing the list of players to watch tonight is 23 year-old Yūki Nagasato. Japanese international Nagasato will line up alongside Mittag in Potsdam’s forward pairing and will look to cap what has been a fantastic first full season with the German champions. Having joined Potsdam from Japanese J-League side NTV Beleza in 2010 as a relative youngster, Nagasato played a part in their Champions League win last year and has gone on to establish herself as a key member of the first team during the current campaign. Also an integral part of the Japanese national side, where she has scored at a rate of over one goal every other game, Nagasato will line up against England in the group stages of next month’s Women’s World Cup.
The ability of the players on show, the standalone importance of the fixture, and the fact that it is a repeat of last year’s final all point towards tonight’s encounter being a fantastic contest.Potsdamare probably the favourites, a mark both of the dominance of German sides in this tournament over recent years (Arsenal’s 2007 triumph aside, German clubs have lifted the trophy in five of the last six seasons) and of the brilliance at their disposal, chiefly in the form of Bajramaj. Nevertheless, Lyon’s superb domestic form will have given them hope, and having matched their opponents blow-for-blow over 120 minutes this time last year the French side will go into tonight’s game knowing that they deserve their place in the final and that if they play to their full potential they are capable of coming away with the title. Personally I am just looking forward to watching elite athletes pitting themselves against one another in a quest for Champions League glory, and the spectacle will be enough for me irrespective of the result.
If anyone reading this lives within reach of Fulham and finds themselves at a loose end this evening, I strongly advise you to head to the Cottage and watch some superb football – while ticket prices for Wembley provide new definitions of the term stratospheric, you can get in tonight for a fiver and watch some of the very best the women’s game has to offer!
John is the Editor-in-Chief of Durham University’s student newspaper, the Palatinate, and a contributor to an impressive list of blogs & radio shows. You can follow him on Twitter @jbm64.