It is almost time for the most anticipated women’s club tournament of the summer: the Women’s International Champions Cup. The Portland Thorns will welcome the Houston Dash and the previous two UEFA Women’s Champions League winners, FC Barcelona Femeni and Olympique Lyonnais, to Providence Park.
Rose City is familiar with the Dash from the Thorns’ frequent meetings with the Houston club, but may not be as familiar with the European giants participating in this tournament. I will give you a brief introduction to both Barcelona and Lyon, breaking down their styles of play, players I’m excited to watch (and you should be too) and former Thorns who will be making a return to Providence Park. First up is reigning European Champions Barcelona.
FC Barcelona’s Beautiful Dominance
Barcelona are undoubtedly the best team in Europe and probably the best team in the world. They have a strong Spanish contingent that have helped Barcelona reach the pinnacle of club soccer and are taking the Spanish Women’s National Team to new heights. These players include Alexia Putellas, Aitana Bonmati, Patri Guijarro, Jennifer Hermoso, Mapi Leon, and many more. The Catalan club also has stellar international talent, including Nigerian Asisat Oshoala, the Netherlands’ Lieke Martens and Norwegian Caroline Graham Hansen.
Barcelona strengthened their already imperious squad during the offseason. Vicky Losada and Kheira Hamraoui notably left the club, but the Catalans reinforced their lines with the additions of Irene Paredes from Paris Saint-Germain and Ingrid Engen and Fridolina Rolfo from VfL Wolfsburg.
The team enters the season no longer under the leadership of Lluis Cortes. Cortes stepped down after leading Barcelona to a historic treble, saying he no longer had the energy required for the role. Reports suggested he had disagreements with the squad’s players.
Cortes was replaced by Jonatan Giraldez, who was Cortes’s assistant for the past two-and-a-half years. It is likely Barcelona will continue to play like they did under Cortes with minor adjustments as Giraldez looks to stamp his identity on the team.
Barcelona won the 2020-21 treble in domineering fashion. They won 33 matches and lost once in Primera Iberdrola. The team scored an outrageous 167 goals and only conceded 15, ending the season with 99 points with a 25 point gap separating them from Real Madrid Femenino, their closest rival.
The Catalans won the Copa de la Reina for the second consecutive time and hold the record for most Spanish Cup titles with eight. The most impressive of the three trophies Barcelona won was the Champions League title.
After being demolished by Lyon in the 2018-19 final 4-1 and being knocked out in the semis by Wolfsburg in 2019-20, Barcelona had their eyes set on Europe’s top prize. They beat Fortuna Hjorring, Manchester City, and PSG on their way to the final and then put in a masterful display as they hammered Chelsea 4-0 to lift the cup.
Barcelona has gotten off to an imperious start to their preseason. The Catalan club humiliated Elche 17-0 and claimed the first-ever women’s Joan Gamper’s Trophy with a 6-0 win over Juventus. They will take on Montpellier in Barcelona on Aug. 13 and will travel to Portland for the WICC on Aug. 15.
Style of Play
Barcelona combines academy products with big signings and domestic players with international superstars. The team is well-structured, but has a fluidity that causes even the best defenses to look porous.
The majority of the team has played together for Barcelona and the Spanish National Team for years and they have developed a level of chemistry that allows for clever runs to be rewarded with nearly impossible passes. Barcelona’s link-up play and off-ball runs consistently devastate opponents.
The team operates like a well-oiled machine. The players have immense on-ball quality and every player on the pitch is able to play out of pressure and break lines with passes or on the dribble.
Because of the unique talent and fluid structure of the Catalan side, they build from the back. It starts with center back Mapi Leon, whose distribution from defense is world-class. The rest of the back line is also comfortable on the ball and this comfortability will be heightened with the introduction of Paredes.
There isn’t a better midfield in the world right now than the combination of Putellas, Guijarro, and Bonmati/Hermoso (Hermoso plays either as a midfielder or striker). Putellas likes to drop deep to help facilitate possession, but also makes advanced runs and morphs into a provider or goalscorer with ease.
The front line is similarly devastating. Hermoso and Oshoala split time as the out-and-out striker. The left flank is patrolled by either Martens or Mariona Caldentey, each of whom offers a different take on the position. Martens is more of a traditional winger who stays wide but can also cut inside with great effect. Caldentey likes to drop into the midfield to link up with the midfield and the other forwards. She leaves space on the left for fullback Leila Ouahabi, Putellas, or another midfielder to drift left and take up more advanced positions. Graham Hansen is almost always on the right flank, making defenders wish they had taken up a different position.
To read more about Barcelona’s tactics, follow this link. Om Arvind wrote a stellar piece outlining Barcelona and Chelsea in the lead-up to the Champions League Final.
Three Players to Watch
Alexia Putellas is a one-of-a-kind player. She is involved in every stage of Barcelona’s build-up. Putellas is a calming presence who facilitates measured possession from the back. She is a creative midfielder that can unlock a defense, a player that drives by defenders with dazzling skills, and she can score from anywhere on the pitch.
Putellas scored 11 goals during the Primera Iberdrola season — tied for third-most with teammate Oshoala — and totaled 26 goals across all competitions. She also ranked third in the league in assists with 12. Thorns fans may remember her from her MVP performance in the 2020 SheBelieves Cup or from the Spanish Women’s National Team that pushed the U.S. to the limit in the 2019 World Cup.
Aitana Bonmati was named the MVP of the 2020-21 Champions League Final, but as always, Putellas was integral to Barcelona’s success and was so while nursing an injury. She sent the keeper the wrong way from the penalty spot to give Barcelona a 2-0 lead inside 15 minutes. Then in the 20th minute, Putellas played an utterly ridiculous ball to Bonmati, who finished off one of the team goals of the season.
Let's over-analyze & look at the anatomy of @FCBfemeni's 3rd goal vs. @ChelseaFCW in the UWCL final.@alexiaputellas & @AitanaBonmati are the stars in this one.— Om (@OmVAsports) May 17, 2021
I did some audio narration but I made the vid so that it's comprehensible silent.
Full vid: https://t.co/L5w00myzCu pic.twitter.com/91lt3QyMTq
Putellas is one of the most talented players in the world and is at once skillful but also clinical and effective. If I were to hand out the Ballon d’Or this year, the choice would be simple — I would award it to her. Putellas is one of the players that makes Barcelona so unpredictable and unstoppable and has made Spain one of the favorites to win the Euros in 2022.
Caroline Graham Hansen
In 2018, Graham Hansen was riddled with injury and had to come off after 15 minutes as she lost her second Champions League Final with Wolfsburg. After the match, she called home and told her family that she wanted to retire. Graham Hansen decided to keep playing. She spent one more year at Wolfsburg before joining Barcelona for the 2019-20 season. She has battled off the injury bug and has solidified herself as one of the most devastating wingers in the game.
The Norwegian registered 19 assists and eight goals in 23 Primera Iberdrola matches. She assisted five times and scored three times during Barcelona’s run to the Champions League title. Graham Hansen scored the Catalan side’s fourth goal in their rout of Chelsea.
Graham Hansen is lightning quick with the ball at her feet. She changes direction effortlessly and glides past defenders. The Norwegian is one of the best one-on-one dribblers in the world and constantly terrorizes defenses with her effective dribbling.
Caroline Graham Hansen is getting the plaudits now and rightly so, she deserves it. She is arguably the world's best winger rn but it's not something recent, CGH was balling at Wolfsburg as well.— Yash (@Odriozolite) June 6, 2021
She is a star who had some setbacks with injuries but rose above & shined again!! pic.twitter.com/mnbwPCb40B
She ranks in the 99th percentile for successful dribbles per 90 minutes and expected assists per 90. She is in the 97th percentile for touches in the box per 90 and progressive runs per 90 and the 95th percentile for shots per 90 and progressive passes per 90.
Graham Hansen is a unique combination of lethality and skill and renders defenses useless with her stellar on-ball quality as well as her ability to unlock a back line with her passing.
Bonmati is an academy product built for big moments. She was born in Catalonia and played for the Barcelona youth teams from 2012-16. Bonmati was promoted to the first team in 2016 and has since made over 100 appearances, scoring 29 goals for Barcelona, and she is only 23 years old. Bonmati only played 58 minutes in the 2019 World Cup but has since become a fixture for Jorge Vilda’s Spain team, alongside many of her club teammates.
The Catalan is a creative player that can create and finish chances. She is versatile and plays as the right sided midfielder or winger in Barcelona’s 4-3-3. When playing midfield, Bonmati is usually the most advanced midfielder with Putellas and Guijarro tasked with facilitating deep build-up and shouldering more of the defensive responsibilities. This allows Bonmati the freedom to pop up in half-spaces and turn to devastating effect.
Stats for domestic season 20-21:— Yash (@Odriozolite) June 17, 2021
Shots p90: 3.5
Dribbles p90: 4.49 (54% succ.)
Progressive runs: 2.71
Through passes p90: 1.26
Touches in PA: 5.75
Recoveries: 5.75 (75.9% in opp half)
Defensive duels p90: 5.68 (66.3% acc.) pic.twitter.com/Hw6l4Ov0wg
Bonmati is also a very talented winger. She has great vision and is dangerous with the ball at her feet. The Catalan can take players on, make intelligent runs and score goals. She also seems to have a knack for turning it on when the lights are the brightest.
The Barcelona academy product scored the second goal of the 2019-20 Copa de la Reina Final which was played during the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. She was named the Player of the Match. Bonmati also provided a crucial assist to make it 1-1 in the first leg of the UWCL semifinal against PSG.
Bonmati’s most iconic moment came in the UWCL final. She made the run, which was expertly found by Putellas, and Bonmati finished to put Barcelona 3-0 to the good and was named MVP of the final.
Bonmati scored three UWCL goals and recorded 10 goals and 10 assists in league play. She has an incredibly high ceiling and will continue to get better. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the Barcelona vs. Lyon matchup is that Bonmati was rumored to make a big money move to Lyon that didn’t come to fruition. Could Bonmati rub salt in Lyon’s wounds in this tournament and for years to come?
Former Portland Thorns
Crnogorcevic is a versatile player and a legendary Swiss international. She is typically an attacking option. Crnogorcevic is the top scorer for Switzerland internationally and provides a strong aerial presence in the box. She is also quick and defensively solid. But she has gotten most of her time at Barcelona at right back, coming in to give Marta Torrejon rest. The Swiss international also appears in the attack for the Catalans. She scored four goals and provided six assists in Primera Iberdrola this season.
Crnogorcevic has played for some of women’s soccer’s top clubs. After leaving the Swiss league, Crnogorcevic went to Germany where she played for Hamburger SV before joining FFC Frankfurt. At Frankfurt, Crnogorcevic won her first UWCL title against PSG 2-1.
When Crnogorcevic extended her contract with Frankfurt, she asked the club to include a way out of her contract under one condition. In the fall of 2015, right after Mark Parsons took over the Portland Thorns, he had been in contact with Crnogorcevic. The clause in the contract stated that if the Thorns came calling she could opt out of the contract and sign with Portland.
That is what happened in 2018. Recent signing Caitlin Foord went down with a serious injury and would miss substantial time after undergoing surgery and Portland needed someone to fill in in the attacking line. The Thorns reached out to Crnogorcevic when she finished the Cyprus Cup with Switzerland and within three days she had signed for Portland.
In Portland, Crnogorcevic made 34 appearances and scored six goals in the NWSL. The Swiss international made 20 appearances and 17 starts in 2018, scoring five goals and assisting three. She added a goal and an assist in 2019 but when players returned from the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Crnogorcevic saw fewer minutes.
Crnogorcevic joined Barcelona in December of 2019. She has been used as a rotation player in the attack and in defense. The Swiss international came on in the Champions League Final in the 82nd minute to replace Torrejon and won her second UWCL title.
At Barcelona, Crnogorcevic has won a historic treble which included the Primera Iberdrola league title, Copa de la Reina and UWCL titles in 2021. She also won the 2020 editions of the league, Copa de la Reina and the Supercopa Femenina.
Barcelona’s WICC Roster
Sandra Paños Garcia-Villa, Maria Pilar Leon Cebrian, Melanie Del Pilar Serrano Perez, Jennifer Hermoso Fuentes, Marta Torrejon Moya, Maria Francesca Caldentey Oliver, Alexia Putellas Segura, Patricia Guijarro Gutierrez, Catalina Coll Lluch, Aitana Bonmati Conca, Caroline Graham Hansen, Andrea Pereira Cejudo, Ana Maria Crnogorcevic, Jana Fernandez Velasco, Bruna Vilamala Costa, Claudia Pina Medina, Irene Paredes Hernandez, Gemma Font Oliveras, Lieke Martens, Asisat Lamina Oshoala, Ariadna Mingueza Garcia, Maria Perez Rabaza, Ornella Maria Vignola Cabot, Julia Bartel Holgado.
FC Barcelona Femeni take on Olympique Lyonnais at 5:30 p.m. PST at Providence Park on Wednesday, Aug. 18. Portland Thorns FC vs. Houston Dash will follow with kickoff slated for 8:00 p.m.
The losers of the two matches will play at 4:30 p.m. and the championship will be contested at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 21.