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The road to Cardiff

The road to Cardiff
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The road to Cardiff

Of the 36 teams who took their places on the starting blocks when the ball started rolling in August 2016, 11 sprinted through the qualifying round unbeaten. But only the nine winners of the groups of four earned the right to appear on stage when the curtain rose on the knockout rounds in October. The qualifying groups had yielded a healthy total of 256 goals at an average of 4.74 per match. But the overall average blurred a picture of contrasting colours. Group 2 produced 46 goals, for example; Group 6 only 15. Different stations on learning curves were signposted by statistics. One-third of the contestants averaged in excess of 20 goal attempts per match – Breidablik (Iceland) and Medyk Konin (Poland) as many as 28 – whereas, at the other end of the scale, four teams fell below one tenth of that average.

Three of the successful contestants in the qualifying round went on to surmount the first hurdle of the knockout stage too, although it should be added that, among the last-32 fallers, Bosnian champions SFK 2000 Sarajevo were edged out on a 2-1 aggregate by Rossiyanka of Russia, while Medyk Konin succumbed by an even narrower margin (the away goals rule) after fighting back from 3-1 down at home to Brescia to win 4-3 (the decider scored direct from a corner), only to be defeated 3-2 in Italy.

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BIIK take on Verona in the round of 32

However, two of the three successful clubs had the misfortune to be drawn against the eventual finalists in the following round of 16 while Tommy Stroot's FC Twente were again eliminated by FC Barcelona – the Dutch side's nemesis the previous season. Although Paris Saint-Germain dispatched BIIK-Kazygurt by a comfortable margin in the last 16, they had been made to sweat by Monica Knuden's LSK Kvinner the round before, Patrice Lair's team needing a 4-1 victory in the French capital to overturn a 3-1 first-leg loss in Norway.

The overall balance of the round of 32 was 16 wins for home teams and ten by visitors, with only six games drawn. The average number of goals per match was whittled down to 3.44, reflecting the increasingly competitive complexion of the action. At the same time, the increasing pulling-power of the UEFA Women's Champions League was highlighted by an attendance of 9,127 at San Mamés in Bilbao to watch Athletic Club beat Fortuna Hjørring 2-1 in the first leg of their last-32 tie.

However, the difference between the elite and the clubs aspiring to join them was sharply defined by a round of 16 where six of the eight ties were decided by aggregate margins of five goals or more – with Olympique Lyonnais ruthlessly setting benchmarks with a 17-0 demolition of FC Zürich Frauen in which, to underline the strength of Gérard Prêcheur's squad, ten players got on the scoresheet. In the most closely-fought ties, Fortuna won in both Hjorring and Brescia to eliminate one of the previous campaign's quarter-finalists, while Nick Cushing's Manchester City WFC made club history with a 2-1 aggregate triumph over Brøndby IF to earn a place among the last eight. Their 1-1 scoreline in Denmark was the only draw in a round that otherwise yielded eight home wins and seven victories for visitors.

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Barcelona got the better of Rosengård

The quarter-finals rumbled with the sound of heavy metal. Eight games of extraordinary intensity produced just 13 goals. Xavi Llorens opted for a 1-3-4-3 structure in Barcelona's tie against Rosengård's 1-4-4-2, laying foundations for composed combination play that allowed the Spanish side to dictate the tempo. Jack Majgaard's team, hampered by wayward finishing (none of the Swedes' ten attempts in Barcelona found the target), failed to breach a well-organised defence based on rapid transition work by the wing-backs.

FC Bayern München had the misfortune to take on Paris Saint-Germain while key players were on their injury list. Yet while the French outfit missed chances in Munich, a high ball-win by Nicole Rolser followed by two crossfield passes enabled Bayern's Vivianne Miedema to score the only goal of the game. During the Paris return leg, the obdurate 1-5-3-2 defending by Thomas Wörle's charges was unstitched by three free-kicks and a ball loss in the defensive third, the hosts prevailing 4-1 overall.

A free-kick also initiated the demise of Germany's other representatives. Camille Abily struck directly into the Wolfsburg net to put Olympique Lyonnais ahead, with intricate combination play earning a well-worked second and a 2-0 first-leg advantage for the champions of France. To their credit, Wolfsburg fought valiantly in Lyon, where a late penalty was enough to salvage a victory but not the tie. Unusually, the quarter-finals signified the end of the road for the German clubs.

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Carli Lloyd helped see off Fortuna

In the other quarter-final, Manchester City enjoyed possession and control in their away leg in Hjorring but pierced the Fortuna defence only once, when new recruit Carli Lloyd converted a cross from the left. The return was a similar story, with a corner yielding City's sole reward for overall domination. Brian Sørensen's last throw of the dice was to switch to a back line of three – but the ploy failed to pay dividends against the high pressing and impressive athletic qualities of the English side.

Although a slick counterattack yielded an equaliser after an early penalty, City struggled against the high pressing and composed possession play of Olympique Lyonnais, who operated in a 1-3-5-2 structure against the Mancunians' 1-4-4-2. A neat combination move and a swift counter-punch after a high ball-win resulted in two more goals for the visitors. But, although they restricted City to half-a-dozen goal attempts during the return leg in Lyon, Gérard Prêcheur's troops once again failed to offer the home fans a goal and suffered a second successive 1-0 defeat which, thanks to their impressive away form, inflicted minimal damage.

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Parc des Princes was the end of the road for Barcelona

Barcelona, the first Spanish club to reach the semi-finals, endured a similar fate against Paris Saint-Germain when they entertained them at a packed Mini Estadi. Llorens mirrored Paris's 1-3-5-2 formation but the home team struggled to match the visitors for power, anticipation and composed possession play through midfield and, more especially, the wide areas. Three crosses paved the way for an impressive victory. Unfazed by falling 3-0 behind early in the second half, Barcelona switched to a more direct, aggressive attacking mode for the final phase of the game and bagged a consolation goal that permitted the flames of hope to keep flickering as they headed for the return in Paris.

Although they pressed with determination and strove valiantly to break Paris's stranglehold on midfield, their ambitions were dashed by a penalty and by a wide free-kick delivered by Eve Perisset, deflected by a Barça defender into her own net. The 5-1 aggregate scoreline took Lair's side comfortably along the last leg of the road to Cardiff and a contest against his old team in the first final of any UEFA competition to be disputed by two clubs from France.