Friday, December 3 2021

Two decades on from its debut, the UEFA Women’s Champions League will feature a 16-team group stage for the first time this season as Barcelona begin their title defence in a new-look tournament.

Crowned champions after thrashing Chelsea in a clash of first-time finalists last May, Barcelona are heavy favourites to advance from a section including 2007 winners Arsenal and two newcomers, Hoffenheim and Danish club Koge.

The holders can count on Alexia Putellas, the reigning UEFA women’s player of the year who recently signed an extension with Barcelona until 2024, Dutch star Lieke Martens and the prolific Jenni Hermoso.

Barcelona powered to a second successive Spanish title last season, winning 33 of 34 matches and scoring a whopping 167 goals. They have begun the new campaign in the same vein with five wins from five, scoring 35 times and conceding just once.

Arsenal return to Europe’s elite competition for just the second time in eight seasons, boosted by the recruitment of four-time Olympian and two-time World Cup winner Tobin Heath.

Hoffenheim give Germany three representatives — alongside perennial contenders Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich — while Koge broke the Brondby-Fortuna Hjorring duopoly in their first season in the Danish top flight.

French giants Lyon saw their five-year European reign ended by Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals last season, but they have since brought in goalkeeper Christiane Endler and forward Signe Bruun from their domestic rivals as well as Danielle van de Donk.

Yet the most important news for Lyon is the recovery of Ada Hegerberg, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner. The Norwegian could make her comeback Tuesday against Swedish club Hacken after 20 months out.

The 26-year-old attacker has been sidelined since January 2020 after rupturing a cruciate ligament in her right knee and then suffering a left tibia stress fracture, which was initially undetected.

Hegerberg, a five-time Champions League winner with Lyon, is the all-time record scorer in the competition with 53 goals.

Lyon will also face Bayern, semi-finalists last term and one of four teams to qualify directly, and Benfica, who only started a women’s team in 2018. They are the first Portuguese club to reach the last 16.

– Real Madrid make European bow –

English champions Chelsea host two-time champions Wolfsburg in their opening group fixture. Emma Hayes’ side defeated the Germans 5-1 on aggregate in last season’s quarter-finals.

Juventus, Italian champions each of the past four years, have made it beyond the last 32 in Europe for the first time. They have an added incentive to do well with the final at the Allianz Stadium in Turin.

Swiss outfit Servette are also in uncharted territory after winning their maiden Super League title.

Real Madrid, in their second season in existence after taking over CD Tacon, caught the eye by dumping out Manchester City in qualifying.

The reward for the Spaniards on their Champions League debut is a group with PSG, WFC Kharkiv of Ukraine and Breidablik — the first Icelandic team to make the group stage of a men’s or women’s UEFA club competition.

Formerly played over home-and-away knockout ties from the last 32, clubs in the group stage will receive a minimum of 400,000 euros ($465,000) — five times more than before in the round of 16, according to UEFA.

The winner stands to pocket up to 1.4 million euros, with UEFA projecting a total payout of 24 million euros to participating clubs or as ‘solidarity payments’ to non-competing clubs.

In contrast, the clubs that qualified for the group stage of the men’s Champions League will earn a minimum of 15.64 million euros.

If a club wins every group match and lifts the trophy in Saint Petersburg, it will net 85.1 million euros in prize money, not including TV income payments and those based on its UEFA ranking.

mw/jc

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