It is difficult to understand how all these months of lockdown affect sportspersons. Difficult because the natural assumption has been derived watching men’s football. Yesterday Arsenal’s women team, visibly struggling to shake off the six months of lockdown and lack of match practice, were sluggish in the opening half and finished the match winded and heavy-legged as well. However, the English side -- endowed with pace and attacking talent -- did put up a spirited show in patches before losing 1-2 to Paris Saint-Germain Feminines (PSG) in their UEFA Women’s Champions League quarterfinal match on August 22.
Both Arsenal manager Joe Montemurro and their goalscorer in the match Beth Mead, cited lack of match practice as the reason for their struggle to match PSG despite having the firepower in the ranks.
“Match time is what you want and it probably gives them a little bit of an edge. We've had a lot of friendlies but today was their day and not ours,” Mead told BT Sport after the match.
Montemurro mirrored Mead’s words: “You can't measure where you're at properly because you don't get the opportunity to play top opposition in the build-up. It would have been fantastic but we had to abide by the rules. We did what we could do, simulated as much pressure moments as we could for the players, but it didn't go our way.”
PSG, who had two competitive fixtures in August, were on the boil right from the start. Arsenal got pushed in their own half and onto the backfoot. The narrative remained more-or-less the same right through the match. Arsenal did ask questions in between, but largely were found chasing a sublime PSG side which outplayed the Gunners in huge spells through the match.
Right from the opening exchanges, the French side dominated possession and were rewarded with the lead through Marie-Antoinette Katoto’s first-time effort at 15 minutes. Katato sidestepped away from her marker Leah Williamson in the corner and volleyed to the near post.
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For a brief while it seemed the goal awakened Arsenal’s resolve. PSG were wary -- mindful rather -- of the pace on the break Arsenal players are capable of. They dominated and dictated tempo while ensuring they did not get caught in counters.
One of the few times Arsenal came to matching PSG’s pace and intent on the pitch led to the equaliser. It was when Kim Little, using her footwork, burst between markers to pass to Mead at the top of the box, who equalised with a powerful strike. The goal itself, which came just before half time, was clinically and powerfully driven into the bottom corner. Replays later showed Mead to have been marginally offside, but with no VAR, the goal stayed. No taking the credit away from the skill or the presence of mind the 25-year-old displayed while executing a lovely twist to score her first Champions League goal.
After the strike, Arsenal dominated the closing minutes of the half, with Vivianne Miedema coming tantalisingly close to giving her side the lead, but ended up poking just wide.
The break did more good to PSG than Arsenal, who lost the momentum they possessed after the equaliser. The French side controlled proceedings with Kadidiatou Diani and Katoto spearheading the forays at the business end. Arsenal custodian Manuela Zinsberger was forced into action quite a few times by the duo. The winner, however, came from substitute Signe Bruun. She scored after being on the pitch for two minutes and 64 seconds. The move began with Katoto, who scooped up Diani’s lay-off and crossed for Bruun to put it home and seal their semifinal spot.
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Arsenal would be devastated at the moment, not just by the loss but also by the fact that their next feature in the knockouts of the Champions League would be at least two years away. They finished behind Chelsea and Manchester City in the Women’s Super League last season and so won’t qualify for the next edition of the European competition.
PSG would be keen to build on this victory and the form displayed by Katoto, the Division 1 Féminine top scorer for the past two seasons. Throughout the match, Katoto and winger Diani troubled Williamson with quick touches and passes that helped PSG break into the Arsenal box time and again.
There is no doubt that this PSG side is brimming with talent. But they have always been second best to the all-conquering Lyon who beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in Saturday’s other quarterfinal. Lyon have won the Champions League six times and the French league 14. The closest PSG have come to claiming the European title is the semifinals. They will be hoping that this is going to be their year -- banking on the current form and the attacking nous to get the better of their more illustrious French rivals -- Lyon -- in the semifinals on August 26. The winner of that match will face either FC Barcelona or Wolfsburg, who play their final-four match a day earlier.
Lyon, the top team in the mix, also has its spearheads -- Nikita Parris and Amel Majri -- in good form. It was their goals that put the French side in the semifinals for the fifth time in a row.
Though the scoreline is similar to that of the PSG victory, Lyon came through a more hardfought encounter against Bayern. The German side, in fact, kept Lyon not just at bay but chasing as well in the first 40 minutes of the match. In the 22nd minute, Bayern nearly captured the lead. Hanna Glas whipped in a cross which Lea Schuller missed to connect for a poke in by mere inches.
Lyon, who held the majority of the possession through the half but were unable to break the resolute Bayern 4-4-1-1 formation, struck in the closing stages of the half. A flick over the top saw Parris beat Kristin Demann to the ball. Bayern goalkeeper Laura Benkarth was slow off her line, and while she ran into Parris, the ball ended up in the back of the net.
Lyon went on the offensive in the second half, chasing a goal to seal the deal. In the 60th minute, Majri sent a freekick into the back of the net just out of reach of the hands of a diving Benkarth.
The lead lasted just five minutes, though. Bayern won a freekick in the 64th minute, and Carolin Simon’s low effort helped them pull one back. The scores remained so with Bayern chasing the game and Lyon keeping things at bay.
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