The 2020-21 Women's Champions League is building up to be one of the fiercest in the competition's recent history. Several teams -- Lyon, Chelsea and Barcelona -- have gone on winning runs domestically and are now turning their attention to Europe's premier competition.
This season is the final one before UEFA makes several changes to the tournament's structure -- included the long called-for introduction of group stages -- and with the Olympics in the not-so-distant future (COVID-19 permitting), clubs and players will be hoping to make an impression. Here's how the final 16 are shaping up ahead of the first games on March 3.
It's impossible to answer this question without first turning to Lyon. They won their fifth title in a row in 2020 and haven't missed a final since 2010. However, Paris Saint-Germain snapped their 80-game winning streak in November; beating them is possible.
Chelsea and Manchester City, meanwhile, will be hopeful they can become the second-ever English team to win the UWCL. Emma Hayes is revered for her managerial talent in England, but Chelsea's away record leaves a bit to be desired. As for City, Gareth Taylor's side have two 2019-20 UWCL winners in their ranks with Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood, and they will be hoping that this experience gives them an extra push over the line.
VfL Wolfsburg are regular features in the final, but after struggling a bit domestically -- they're in unfamiliar territory, sitting second behind Bayern and in danger of ending their run of four straight league titles -- they may not have the power to get over the line this year.
The USWNT stars on show in Europe
There will be strong USWNT interest in Catarina Macario, who joined Lyon shortly after declaring for the national team. She left the SheBelieves Cup early to return to France and takes her place among some of Europe's best players. Manchester City's Sam Mewis marked her return from injury at the weekend with a brace against Birmingham City. It is a quick turnaround for Rose Lavelle and Abby Dahlkemper, who both only returned to England on Friday from the SheBelieves Cup but they did both make substitute appearances at the weekend. Lavelle, who won Most Valuable Player in the Cup, will be hoping to show Taylor why she deserves a regular starting spot.
Players to watch
Between established talent and exciting newcomers, there's no shortage of players to watch in the tournament. Players like Lyon's Dzsenifer Marozsan, Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry are established pros in the UWCL. PSG's Marie-Antoinette Katoto has been lighting up the Division One Feminine with her goals, as has Atletico Madrid's Ludmila in the Primera Iberdrola. Lea Schuller also continues to impress for both Bayern Munich and Germany. Defensively, keep an eye on 19-year-old Lena Oberdorf of Wolfsburg, who can occasionally pop up and score a goal as well.
Wednesday, March 3
Barcelona vs. Fortuna Hjorring: Barcelona are on a remarkable run in the Primera Iberdrola, winning all 17 games they have played so far this season and only conceding three goals. Lluis Cortes' side also have a strong record in the UWCL, having made it to the semifinals in 2019-20 and progressing beyond the round of 16 each of the past five seasons. With players like Caroline Graham Hansen and Jennifer Hermoso, they will be favourites to go through over Fortuna Hjorring, who went out at this stage last year to eventual winners Lyon. They are third in Denmark's Elitedivisionen, though just a point separates them from the top two.
Manchester City vs. Fiorentina: Manchester City were knocked out by Atletico Madrid at this stage last season and Taylor will be optimistic of his side progressing further this year.
After a rocky start to the season, City are on a brilliant run of form that has left them just two points off Chelsea in the FA Women's Super League. With 2019-20 UWCL winners Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood in his side as well as the USWNT's Sam Mewis announcing her return from injury with a brace at the weekend, they should see past the challenge of Fiorentina. However, the Italian side won't be a pushover and there are some familiar former WSL faces in the squad such as ex-City player Tessel Middag and former Arsenal defender Louise Quinn.
Fiorentina have lost just one game in 2021, but they have never gone past this stage in the UWCL competition.
Rosengard vs. St. Polten: The UWCL hasn't had a Swedish quarterfinalist since 2017-18 and Rosengard will be hoping to rectify this as prior to that season, the Damallsvenskan (Sweden's professional women's league) had always been represented in the last eight. However, they will have to contend with just having 15 players eligible to play in the tie after a UEFA rule change means several of their players cannot compete, something their sporting director Therese Sjogran called "a disaster." They will also be without Sweden striker Anna Anvegard.
Austrian champions St. Polten are in the round of 16 for the first time after keeping a clean sheet against Zurich. They are 13 spots behind Rosengard in UEFA's club rankings so even with the Swedish side's squad troubles, they should see past the Austrians.
Wolfsburg vs. LSK Kvinner: Last year's runners-up Wolfsburg have been knocked out of the UWCL by Lyon in each of the past five seasons, and after losing player of the tournament Pernille Harder to Chelsea, they will be out to prove they're still a dominant force. While they have struggled domestically this season -- they're five points off Bayern Munich in the Frauen Bundesliga and another loss could hand their rivals the title -- they are still a squad packed with talent, especially with the likes of young Germany defender Oberdorf.
The game has taken on an added pressure for LSK Kvinner, who won't qualify for next year's UWCL without progressing through this round as they finished fifth in Norway's Toppserien. They will also come up against a familiar face, with Ingrid Syrstad Engen lining up for Wolfsburg having moved from LSK this season. Coach Knut Slateim admitted they are the "underdogs," but hoped the two-legged knockout nature might play in their favour.
Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid: Chelsea lost their incredible 33-game unbeaten run when they lost to Brighton & Hove Albion on Feb. 7, but have returned to winning ways since that shock defeat in the WSL. Hayes' side didn't qualify for the 2019-20 tournament and the coach will be out to prove a point with the UWCL her white whale, having reached the semifinals in 2017-18 and 2018-19. In the past year, though, she has added 2019-20 player of the tournament Harder to her already star-studded squad, whose experience in last year's final with Wolfsburg will be invaluable.
Standing in their way are Atletico, one of the tougher teams her side could have drawn, having reached the quarterfinals last year only to be knocked out by their Spanish rivals Barcelona. They have knocked Man City out in each of the past two seasons, and Chelsea will have a hard time quietening Ludmila and Deyna Castellanos, a key pair in Atletico's attack. It has been a tough season for the Spanish giants though and while they are third in the Primera Iberdrola, they are 13 points adrift of Barca, who have three games in hand.
Thursday, March 4
BIIK-Kazygurt vs. Bayern Munich: For the second year in a row, Bayern Munich face BIIK in the round of 16. Last year the German side progressed to the quarterfinals with a 7-0 aggregate win, and they will be expected to see off the challenge of the Kazakhstan side again this year. Bayern are five points clear of Wolfsburg at the top of the Frauen Bundesliga, but do travel without Germany internationals Lina Magull and Marina Hegering, who both have muscle injuries.
BIIK, who haven't played a competitive game since beating Kharkiv in the round of 32 in December, go into the game as 2020 Kazakhstan Championship winners. However, Bayern will be expected to comfortably win this tie.
Lyon vs. Brondby: Lyon are looking to defend their title for the sixth year in a row and come up against Brondby, who are competing in their 18th UWCL -- a record-equalling feat. With Lyon one of the most notorious teams in women's football, it is no small task for the side from Denmark to overcome them and the French team should progress to the next stage. There will be interest in Macario, who joined Lyon shortly after declaring for the USWNT and left the SheBelieves Cup early so she could return to France.
Lyon aren't without their cracks as PSG snapped their 80-game winning streak on Nov. 20, but with too many talented players to list, they won't be tossed aside easily. It is a David vs. Goliath task with Brondby second in the Danish Superliga.
Tuesday, March 9
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Sparta Prague: It's building towards a potentially exciting season for last year's semifinalists PSG, who are top of Division One Feminine after beating Lyon. Jean-Luc Vasseur's side have dominated both domestically and abroad, but PSG have shown some vulnerabilities. Canada's Jordyn Huitema and Ashley Lawrence didn't travel for the SheBelieves Cup, meaning both will be fresh. Katoto has 17 goals in the league and manager Olivier Echouafni will be hoping she links up with top assist maker Kadidiatou Diani to see them past Sparta Praha.
While Martin Masaryk's side did beat last year's semifinalists Glasgow City to reach the round of 16, PSG present a different challenge from the Scottish side. Runners-up in the Czech first division last season and leading the league this year, the all-Czech squad will hope to use their strength to outmuscle their opponents, but PSG should progress.