UWCL talking points: Chelsea fume at ref calls, Parisian woe

Matchday One of the 2023-24 Women’s Champions League group stage is over and there were some shocks among the standard big wins for the likes of Barcelona (5-0 vs. Benfica) and Lyon (9-0 vs. Slavia Praha).

It was a bad time for Parisian clubs, as Paris Saint-Germain lost 2-0 to Ajax and Paris FC fell 2-1 to Swedish side BK Häcken, while Norway’s SK Brann picked up an important 2-1 win over Austria’s St. Pölten. Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt also overcame Sweden’s Rosengård 2-1, and Bayern Munich were held to a 2-2 draw against Roma. But it was a controversial 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Real Madrid that set pulses racing as the lack of VAR came back to bite the Blues.

We asked our writers Sophie Lawson, Sam Marsden and Julien Laurens to answer some of our burning questions.

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1. What caught your eye from the first matchday of the group stage?

Sam Marsden: There were some great stories across the opening round of fixtures. It was a tough week for the Paris teams, who were on the wrong side of the two biggest surprises: Ajax beating Paris Saint-Germain and Häcken winning away at Paris FC. As a result of that Ajax win, the competition to qualify from Group C, which also includes Bayern Munich and Roma, is going to be fierce.

Also, we talk so much about the cons of having VAR in the men’s game at the moment, what about the cons of NOT having it here?

Chelsea will rightly be furious at only drawing 2-2 away at Real Madrid. Madrid’s late equaliser came from a penalty given following a foul which was outside the box, while Niamh Charles had a 95th-minute goal dubiously ruled out for offside. Charles was definitely not off. Sam Kerr was, but was she interfering? Not really.

Julien Laurens: Unfortunately for me, it has to be the level of refereeing in these fixtures. In some games, where the gap between the two teams was so big (Lyon, Barcelona), no problems. However, in much tighter games, Real Madrid vs. Chelsea and Ajax vs. PSG, the errors from the referees were not acceptable at this level.

How was Chelsea’s third goal disallowed for offside? And how didn’t PSG get a penalty in the second half where the ball twice hit the arm of an Ajax player?

Sophie Lawson: The bravery from most teams was impressive. Over the years it’s been normal to see teams sit back and sink into themselves in the Champions League, but most came out to play.

Häcken and Ajax were the two who brought the big surprises, but Brann (in their first-ever group game) and Benfica (though it didn’t work out so well for the Portuguese champions against Barca) really showed their growth and belief in how they play.

For all the close results, it’s hard to gloss over the sheer dominance of both Lyon and Barcelona — the only two previous winners in the group stage this year, not counting Eintracht Frankfurt‘s previous life as FFC Frankfurt. It already feels like we’re waiting for a third Lyon vs. Barcelona final in six years at the end of the season.

2. Who was the standout player for you?

Lawson: It’s a cop out, but I’m going to say no one. There were a lot of standout team performances: the entire way Barcelona attack means no single player takes all the credit, Ajax’s entire XI had to all show up to handle PSG as well as they did, while Eintracht’s interplay and Lyon’s, well, everything was impressive.

There were some nice moments for players and Chelsea’s Charles deserves praise as she has continued her fine form into Europe, though was unlucky to have her winning goal ruled out. Roma’s Evelyne Viens continues to repay coach Alessandro Spugna for his faith in her, while Häcken goalkeeper Jennifer Falk helped cause an upset against Paris FC.

Marsden: She never seems to get any recognition when it comes to individual awards, so I’m going to give a shoutout to Barça’s Caroline Graham Hansen here. The Norway winger has now laid on a hat trick of assists in her last two home games, the latest coming in Barca’s 5-0 rout of Benfica. There were also two goals each for Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí, the last two winners of the Ballon d’Or, as the holders started with a bang.

Laurens: I have to go for Ajax’s Sherida Spitse. She is not the most gifted technically, but at 33 years old her leadership and contribution to Ajax’s win over PSG at the Johan Cruyff Arena on Wednesday was exceptional. She scored a penalty to make it 2-0, cleared the ball off the line after a fumble by her goalkeeper and worked so hard all around the pitch — defending, recovering balls and filling gaps — to prevent the Parisians playing their own game.

3. Which is your underdog team to reach the knockouts?

Lawson: After one round of fixtures, Häcken look the most likely of the “underdogs” to squeeze through but there’s a lot to be said for the fixture scheduling and how well they’ll fare over the next few months given they are now out of their domestic season in Sweden. For those who are currently outside of the top two, I’m still standing by my Slavia prediction, even if they were thoroughly dismantled by Lyon. The only way is up.

Marsden: Do Frankfurt count as an underdog given they came from Pot 4? After beating Pot 2’s Rosengård, second place behind Pot 1’s Barcelona will be a battle between the German side and Pot 3’s Benfica.

Strangely, you have to feel a bit for Häcken and Ajax, who despite producing brilliant victories still have so much work to do to qualify. Ajax will need results against Bayern and Roma, while Häcken will have to come up with something against Chelsea and Real Madrid. Still, their wins this week have shaken things up nicely in Group C and Group D.

Laurens: I obviously have to keep faith with my Paris teams, so I will go for Paris FC as PSG are definitely no underdogs. Despite the disappointing defeat against Häcken, there is still hope as they created enough chances to win but were not clinical enough in either box.

This is a group of players who made history on their way to this group stage, caused massive upsets by knocking out Arsenal and Wolfsburg, and play some nice football. They lack experience, but they have so much faith in their own ability that they can definitely make it to the next round.