Them again. From north London to northern Italy and on to northern Spain, via Germany and France, Lyon and Wolfsburg meet in another Champions League final. San Sebastián, the city with the A-list film festival and the greatest concentration of Michelin stars on earth, brings together Europe’s two best women’s football teams, domestic double winners demonstrating they still dominate this competition. Others draw ever closer, PSG and Barcelona taking them to the wire, but only this familiar pair are still standing.
When Wendie Renard rose way above the rest to head in the only goal at San Mamés on Wednesday night, dancing her way back to the dressing room after her 19th European semi-final game, she took Lyon to their fifth consecutive final. “They’re familiar with games like this,” said the Wolfsburg coach, Stephan Lerch, with admirable understatement.
Lyon’s coach, Jean-Luc Vasseur, called his side “a Formula One car” when he took over last summer, a “precision machine” he barely needed to touch. They had, after all, won four consecutive Champions Leagues. It is almost six years since they lost in this competition and this is their ninth final in 11. They have won six of them. Lyon have the captains of France, Germany and Japan, making their presence at Anoeta no surprise.
Lucy Bronze, playing her last game for the club, was described by England manager, Phil Neville, as the “best player in the world without doubt”. She was runner-up in last year’s Ballon d’Or; the previous year’s winner, Ada Hegerberg, plays up front – although injury has denied her an appearance at this “final eight” in the Basque country.
“In France, like in Europe, everyone wants to dethrone Lyon. It’s true that it’s a bit annoying to always see the same team on top,” says the goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, who has played in all those finals.
The Wolfsburg midfielder Alex Popp says: “They’re the No 1 team in Europe and we want to put a stop to that.”
If anyone is equipped to do so, it’s the Frauen-Bundesliga champions. In this season’s competition the two finalists have between them played 12, won 12, scored 62 and conceded two. Wolfsburg have scored 32, Lyon 30. Svenja Huth and the competition’s top scorer, Pernille Harder, have particularly impressed for the German side.
Not that this has been an easy path, nor a foregone conclusion, inevitable though this meeting may appear. Lyon squeezed past Bayern and defeated PSG with that solitary Renard goal. Wolfsburg beat Barcelona 1-0 after the Catalans were denied a penalty and missed chances. There will be VAR in the final; had there been in the semis, Barcelona manager, Lluís Cortés, said: “The result might have been different.”
“We were a little bit lucky,” admitted the goalscorer Fridolina Rolfö. “But it says a lot about the club that everybody has a strong winning mentality, even if we didn’t play our best.”
Winners in 2013 and 2014, runners up in 2016 and 2018, Wolfsburg are unbeaten in more than a year. The first time these sides met was the 2013 final: Lyon’s first defeat inside 90 minutes for 120 games. In turn, Lyon are the only team to defeat Wolfsburg in the competition in four seasons.
The problem for Wolfsburg is that Lyon have done so every time, the qualities Rolfö sees in her team even more evident in the French champions. Wolfsburg won the 2013 final 1-0 but have not beaten Lyon since. It has been close but Lyon have always prevailed: on penalties in the 2016 final, 2-1 on aggregate in the 2017 quarter-final, and after extra time in the 2018 final. Last year Lyon won both legs of the quarter-final.
Lyon, though, are unlikely to have Hegerberg available and her replacement, the England forward Nikita Parris, will miss out through suspension, is suspended. Popp, the only Wolfsburg player to appear in all seven meetings, is entitled to believe this time could be different. “I don’t think we’ve had a season as strong as this,” she said. “And we said at the start that the Champions League was our target.”
It is close now, but then it’s been close before. All that stands before Wolfsburg and a first title since back-to-back wins in 2013 and 2014 is a familiar, immovable object.