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UWCL talking points: Chaos of Group C delivers; Chelsea through

Matchday five of the 2023-24 Women’s Champions League group stage is over and we have some teams confirmed for the knockout rounds, and some dropping out.

Barcelona were already through from Group A and a 2-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt kept their 100% record and knocked out the Germans, while Benfica drew 2-2 against Rosengard to seal second spot.

Eight-time winners Lyon were also through in Group B and won 7-0 against St. Pölten, but SK Brann’s 1-0 win at Slavia Prague saw them progress as well.

It’s still anyone’s guess who goes through in Group C as Paris Saint-Germain beat Ajax Amsterdam 3-1 and went top, while bottom side Roma were held to a 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich. But only four points separates top from bottom with one game left.

Chelsea sealed top spot in Group D after a 2-1 win over Real Madrid, who were already out, but Swedish surprise package BK Häcken drew their key clash 0-0 with Paris FC to take a one-point lead for second place going into the final game.

Final group-stage fixtures:
Jan. 30: Bayern vs PSG, Ajax vs Roma
Jan. 30:Paris FC vs Chelsea, Real Madrid vs Häcken
Jan. 31: Lyon vs Slavia, Brann vs St. Pölten;
Jan. 31: Benfica vs Barcelona, Frankfurt vs Rosengård

We asked our writers Sophie Lawson, Sam Marsden and Connor O’Halloran to answer some of our burning questions.

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1. What did you most enjoy from this round of action?

Marsden: Without a doubt: Group C. It has been fascinating throughout and will hopefully not disappoint with next week’s finale. Roma’s 2-2 draw with Bayern was especially entertaining, with the Italians twice giving away the lead in a game which featured goals in 87th, 93rd and 96th minutes, with Lea Schüller twice levelling for the Germans.

The draw, though, was not what either team wanted and leaves both outside the top two spots ahead of a cinematic final round of fixtures on Tuesday. PSG are top and will go through with a draw against Bayern, but if they lose they could still go out. Bayern must win. Ajax will go through if they beat Roma, while Roma need to win and hope Bayern drop points. All to play for, then!

Lawson: Olivia Schough’s goal for Rosengård was sublime and it rather set the tone for the 2-2 draw with Benfica. It’s been tough watching the once-great Swedish team struggle so tangibly this season, but they finally have a point on the board. The draw in Malmö was enough to give Frankfurt the narrowest glimmer of hope in their game away to Barcelona, although despite the Eagles’ best efforts that hope was rather shortlived.

Meanwhile, the chaos of Group C delivered again. I’m not sure I’m enjoying the rollercoaster that much — there’s a lot to be disappointed about from Roma and Ajax — but there was late drama in Italy and some rip-roaring goals in Paris. Wednesday also was a good night for PSG striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto to prove that she’s well on course to recover pre-injury form and, once again, Romée Leuchter stole the show for Ajax despite being on the losing side.

O’Halloran: The crazy ending in the Bayern-Roma game was incredible, but let’s focus on some of the great goals elsewhere. Katoto’s overhead kick — or maybe you could call it a kind of acrobatic side-bicycle kick? — was superb and it kickstarted PSG’s much-needed win. Then there was Schough’s fantastic strike for Rosengård. She had the kind of layoff from teammate Ria Öling on the edge of the box that demands you do nothing else but take a speculative pop at goal, and she delivered superbly. Without hesitating, Schough used the inside of her right boot and curled it deliciously past goalkeeper Lena Pauels into the far right corner.

2. Which team has been most impressive and which the most disappointing?

O’Halloran: It was almost a given that Barça and Lyon would dominate their groups the way they have, given the overwhelming disparity in quality both have over any group opponent, so let’s go with one of those who have overperformed. Ajax are making their first appearance in the group stage this season and were thrown in at the deep end in a tough draw that includes PSG, Bayern Munich and Roma, but that has not phased them too much. This week’s performance at the Parc des Princes won’t do them any favours, but they are second heading into the final round of matches and in with a great shout of making it through.

On the other end of the scale is Real Madrid. On paper, there is some world-class talent in that team, and yet they have just a single point as they head into the final group game. Even an injury-hit Chelsea side could scrape past them on an off-night without too much trouble.

Marsden: There’s no escaping the fact Barcelona and Lyon are the apex predators. Both are unbeaten, both have scored 23 goals in five games, and no team has conceded fewer than them in the competition — Barça have leaked just one goal; Lyon three. Ajax and Häcken are the teams that have, for me, over-performed expectations so far.

As for most disappointing, it could only be Real Madrid once PSG got their together after opening with back-to-back defeats. Madrid looked well-placed to progress from Group D with Chelsea but have made a real mess of things. One point from five games is not good enough.

Lawson: Häcken played yet another good game. Obviously, they could have made things easier for themselves with a win and Rosa Kafaji might still be ruing her missed penalty, but Chiamaka Nnadozie was again the star for Paris FC and more than deserved her clean sheet. Certainly there was a degree of luck about how Group B has shaken out for Brann and although they haven’t set the world on fire, they’ve been steady in all their outings in their debut season in the Champions League. Plaudits must go to the players and manager Martin Ho.

Roma have to go down as the most disappointing, they’ve really struggled since their first game against PSG and have ended up in a tailspin of poor form. Against Bayern, you could see they just didn’t look right and left the door wide open for their opponents. Even after grabbing a stoppage-time goal that could have been a winner, there wasn’t any surprise when they conceded three minutes later to end up with a draw. It’s been a bad month for Roma but it feels like such a fall from grace for a team who delighted so much in their maiden campaign last season. They’re struggling in all competitions right now and it’s hard to watch.

3. Do you think the new ‘Swiss model’ arriving in 2025-26 will be good for the women’s game? Or do you like the group stage as it is?

– All you need to know about the Swiss model in Champions League

Lawson: I feel like something of a fuddy-duddy saying I don’t like change, but I wish we could have had the group stage for longer. Given the direction of the Champions League since its re-introduction three years ago, it’s been an increasingly entertaining format that has not failed to throw up a surprise or two.

I think UEFA has looked at things and decided that aligning both the men’s and women’s competitions would be for the better but we know in football, given the disparity and resources and history, what’s good for the gander isn’t always what’s good for the goose. It’s easy to say football is football, but there’s a lot of context around the state of development in the women’s game across Europe when compared with the men and it would be worth really looking at whether the Swiss model is what fits the women’s competition.

That being said, when it comes in, it might be as enjoyable as the group stage has become. Only time will tell, but I already feel that I’m going to miss this current format.

O’Halloran: It can be hard to throw much, if any, good feeling towards UEFA’s Super League-style attempts at re-branding European club football, but there are definitely pros and cons. The biggest part of this will be the expanded number of teams — from 16 overall to an 18-team league — that should mean more major names make it to this stage rather than fall in qualifying, like Arsenal this season. There’s a flip side to that — Arsenal were beaten by Paris FC and therefore the French side deserve to be in this year’s group stage — but it would at least help the product even more to see more chance of giants facing each other on Europe’s biggest stage.

There is a downside to this too: Look at the drama heading into the final stage of Group C. It’s anyone’s to play for, with four major European teams all still able to qualify after five exciting rounds of matches.

Marsden: I am optimistic it will be. We should get to see more games between the top seeds early on as they size each other up, while the lower-ranked teams will get more matches to test themselves against the best. In the long-term, that should help improve a competition that has been relatively predictable in this year’s group phase, with some notable exceptions.

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