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UEFA Women's Champions League

'Barca changed the game but Lyon was here first' - Inside OL's Women's Champions League comeback

3:00 AM EDT 5/21/22
Lyon Women's Champions League final 2021-22 GFX
The seven-time European champions have a point to prove in Saturday's final in Turin, after recovering from their first trophy-less season since 2006

As players sprinted onto the pitch from the Paris Saint-Germain bench, overjoyed and ecstatic, there was a striking contrast with the way in which their Lyon counterparts slowly walked through the pandemonium.

The seven-time European champions had just suffered their first Women’s Champions League exit in seven years and only their fifth ever defeat to their arch-rivals.

But while setbacks of this nature often result in those on the losing side falling to the ground, unable to hold back the tears, on this occasion, there was more a steely look of acceptance in the eyes of those leaving the pitch of the empty Groupama Stadium. They knew it wasn’t good enough.

Some predicted that this result would be the beginning of the end for the greatest dynasty in women’s football – and one of the greatest in sporting history. With the league title also surrendered to PSG, it would be OL’s first trophyless season since 2006.

But those who did write off this team certainly look foolish now.

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This weekend, Lyon are back in the UWCL final and in search of a victory that would extend their record as the continent’s most successful women’s team.

Yes, last season didn’t go to plan, but it’ll take more than that to take down a club like this.

When GOAL asks Janice Cayman, the Lyon full-back who spent eight years playing for rival teams in France, what it was like to play against the club before she joined, her response is telling: “We called them a machine."

“They were so good with the passing, positioning, and it was just wave after wave coming,” she adds.

“At some point, you know you're going to mess up somewhere and they're going to score and then it's even harder to stop them.

“I was really looking forward to having that feeling being in Lyon, to be kind of invincible.”

Invincible – that’s the reputation this club and these players have. Captain Wendie Renard has won seven Champions League titles and made more appearances in the competition than any other player.

Sarah Bouhaddi, Eugenie Le Sommer and Amel Majri all have seven winners’ medals too, with Delphine Cascarino, Ada Hegerberg and Amandine Henry not far behind on five.

They’re not used to being the team watching another celebrate, that’s for sure.

“It was rough,” Cayman remembers. “We asked ourselves a lot of questions. We know we have the quality and the good players, but for some reason it didn’t match 100 per cent on the field.”

“I think, if anything, it served as extra fuel for us this year,” Catarina Macario, the U.S. women’s national team forward who arrived early last year, tells GOAL.

“It was like, 'Alright, we were nowhere close to where we wanted to be, or what OL is used to in their history', and so we knew that we really needed to take it up a few notches.

“But not only that, it showed that other teams are catching up. We're no longer the only team to be beat. There are a lot of other teams that are really putting in investment and have really talented players in their squad.

“It just means that we have to be even better than ever before. We took that almost like with a grain of salt, like, 'Alright, now the fight is back on'. That's what's been cool about this year, because we're fighting for something, you know?

“It's been really cool to be a part of and to be in this new transitional period of the team and of trying to regain our European title.”

The use of the possessive perfectly sums up the dominance Lyon has enjoyed in Europe over the past decade – but last season they would have to watch another team, Barcelona, lift the trophy.

The last time they did that, in 2015, it was motivating. Two years in a row, they went out in the last 16 and, two years in a row, they had to watch the latter rounds of the competition from the comfort of their own homes.

“I said: ‘I don’t want to watch it again on my TV. I want to play these games’,” Le Sommer said of that barren period in an interview with GOAL back in 2020.

“It was a motivation for me, it was for the team too. This experience made us better and stronger in our mentality.”

After that came five successive titles. That’s telling of the mentality and resilience within these players. With that in mind, those at the club always knew that the response this season would be as good as it has been.

“No one was happy with how last season ended,” Macario explains. “Even if we had won, we weren't playing good football.

"We wanted to use that as an extra motivation for us this year. The unhappiness and dissatisfaction from last year has definitely carried over.”

But it is not just because of this motivation that Lyon are back in the final, nor is it only down to the squad’s insane mentality or world-class quality. It is all of this and more.

In the aftermath of last season’s elimination, head coach Jean-Luc Vasseur was replaced with Sonia Bompastor.

The 41-year-old has brought a lot of qualities to the role, but her experience of playing for Lyon and winning titles at the club is particularly special.

“She's been in our situation,” Cayman says of Bompastor. “She knows sometimes the pressure is high as well. She was a very good player, and a very intense player, always giving it her all – a captain.”

For Damaris Egurrola, the Netherlands midfielder, Camille Abily’s presence is also very important.

“Every time she talks to me and tries to correct stuff, I'm really aware of it because I think she has been one of the best midfielders here in France and Lyon also,” she tells GOAL.

“She was someone that I used to look up to and now she's the assistant coach, trying to help me perform and be better every day. I just try to learn every day from them.

“They've been here a long time, also in the academies. They know how all the young girls work. They've been playing in this league for a long time, so they know all the teams, all the stadiums.

"In that sense, I think we prepared really well for the season because of their experience. That's really helpful for us.”

The integration of some of those young talents – such as Alice Sombath, the teenage defender who ranked at No.6 in this year’s NXGN list – is promising for this club’s future.

But it’s the return of some of their most established stars that has been a particularly significant factor in this season’s success.

Neither Griedge Mbock Bathy – as reliable a centre-back as one could possibly hope to find – nor Ada Hegerberg, recipient of the 2018 Ballon d’Or, played a single minute of football last season due to injury. Their comebacks have been huge.

“Those are two key players,” Cayman says. “It's very sad to see them not being able to play, but then when they get back, I think it's double the pleasure to see them doing what they're good at.”

For Macario, one of the most promising young forwards in the world, to finally get to build that relationship with Hegerberg is big. Their link-up has been one of the most exciting things about Lyon this year.

“She's not the greatest goalscorer in the history of the Champions League for nothing, you know? She's one of the best players in the world for a reason,” Macario laughs. “Having her back helps a lot!

“It's not a one-person game – but she's Ada Hegerberg. She has a big presence on and off the pitch. In the locker room, she's almost like Wendie.

“Wendie's a big captain, she's our captain. She's a big leader but Ada is definitely there with her in giving us that hype speech, in telling us, 'Hey, this is what we need to do', making sure that we all feel confident when stepping onto the pitch.

“She is a big person that we definitely missed and it's so, so good to have her back. This is where she belongs and this is where OL belongs, too. This is what it's supposed to be like.”

We are back to that familiar tale now of Lyon being in the final, but it’s a little different this time around because, for some, OL is not the favourite this weekend.

It’s Barcelona – the reigning European champions, the team that just completed a perfect season in Spain’s domestic league, the team that has taken all of Lyon’s plaudits over the past 12 months.

The French giants have long been considered the benchmark, but now Barca are being talked of as the example, of being the best. That’s another thing adding fuel to Lyon’s fire.

"There was women's football before Barcelona, ​​and it was played here for years,” Hegerberg told L’Equipe earlier this month.

“We have to win again to regain our place in world football. We have the chance to do it this season. We have never lost against Barcelona."

It’s a feeling shared within the group.

“I totally agreed when Ada said this,” Egurrola says. “With all respect for Barcelona, I think they changed the game in Spain. Everyone is crazy about them and it's really something that we need to give importance [to].

“They changed all the mentality of the people, all the crowd and everyone's reporting on Barcelona and Spain and that's really cool. Also, for us, it's a big change in women's football, that they came so strong.

“But on the other side, I also think what Ada said, in the years before, Lyon was also here. They've been champions for the last 10 years and we don't have to forget that.”

Barca certainly will not have forgotten as much. After all, they were on the wrong end of a 4-1 thumping in the 2019 final. They will see Saturday as a chance to get some revenge.

But Lyon have that opportunity too.

After PSG got the better of them last season, they thrust a dagger in their hearts at the Parc des Princes in the semi-finals, winning 2-1 to secure their ticket to Turin in front of the biggest crowd ever to watch the Parisians.

Now, they can wrestle back their status as European champions from the team that took it from them.

“We're really happy with how the season has gone,” Egurrola says, “but the best part is yet to come. We can't wait.”