After Arsenal and Manchester United failed to qualify for the group stages of this season’s Women’s Champions League, WSL managers with experience in the tournament are divided in their opinions of the qualifying format.
Last season’s finalists Wolfsburg also failed to reach the group stage after suffering defeat to Paris FC. The Parisians defeated Arsenal last month, meaning the former champions are also without European football this campaign.
Man Utd fell to a 4-2 aggregate defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in qualifying this week. Manchester City finished fourth in the league and failed to earn a spot in the qualifiers but lost in the first round last season to Real Madrid.
Here is what they have had to say…
Man Utd faced PSG in their maiden qualifying process and while the tie was locked level 1-1 from the first leg, the French side dominated in the second leg, sealing a 3-1 win at Parc des Princes.
“We deserve to be at this level, I’ve no doubt about that. There are teams going through to this [group stage] that are not good enough,” said Skinner following their 4-2 aggregate defeat.
“Our standard is better than that standard, and it’s crazy that we have to play PSG at this qualifying round, crazy. It needs to be something that’s addressed.
“You saw how hard we had to work last year to get into a qualifying round? It’s crazy, right? Look how far Arsenal went last year, look how far Chelsea went, and yet we’re still having to qualify? It doesn’t work.
“Wolfsburg have gone out – they were in the final last year. Mad, that can’t happen right? I don’t think right now the best teams are getting out of these qualifying rounds.
“I think if you put any of the top four [in the WSL] from last season against any team in Europe, I think they’d hold their own. I don’t think it’s a reflection on our league. In fact, I think it’s more difficult to qualify from our league than many of the others.”
Skinner had also criticised the English teams’ qualifying process ahead of the first leg.
Following the comments he made after the game, Skinner was called disrespectful towards the format given it was only Man Utd’s first appearance in the tournament.
“I’m not clarifying what teams I’m talking about,” he said, speaking two days after the crushing loss. “I believe at this level has to have a broader, much broader, depth of teams. If you place those teams in those group stages – and only the group stages will tell us – if any disrespect was made, then obviously I take that back as that wasn’t what it was about.”
“My comment was much more about the breadth and quality that I believe now that there is a need for more teams to be in this competition and then we will see who is average and who is not. We might have been average in the group stage, we don’t know that? But we played a good team,” he added, speaking ahead of Man Utd’s WSL fixture this weekend.
“We have to qualify from a harder group and I think that if we got the chance to play other teams in a different breadth then we’d see where we’re at. From our perspective, we don’t get that opportunity based on us having to qualify from a really difficult league.
“I think I have seen that before, we talk about who gets through to the latter stages of the competition and when I see that it tends to be English, German and French teams with the Spanish obviously winning it, it tends to be from them. That might be investment, opportunity.”
Chelsea have been one of the most formidable sides in Europe in recent years. However, manager Emma Hayes believes that respect for the format and other teams in competition is needed, but called for UEFA to consider changing the format to benefit the growth of all parties involved.
“First of all, we have to respect the format. The format has been in place and evolved a little bit in the last couple of years over a long period of time,” she said.
In the 2016/17 qualifying round, Chelsea defeated Glasgow City, but lost to Wolfsburg. She recalled her frustrations as Chelsea drew the German giants in the qualifying rounds of the next season and lost again.
“A year later, we faced Bayern Munich, won the game in the round of 16. And that improved our coefficient that gave us some points on the board. And guess what, we had to earn that over three years, much like probably Paris FC had to earn that. So I think we have to respect the format. And I think it’s important to say that because we all know what it was.”
Skinner criticised the teams that had qualified for the group stage, saying he believed some were undeserving, but Hayes disagreed with these claims.
“I think that’s ignorant and arrogant all at once for us to say. Roma and Benfica, two teams, won their leagues, they deserve perhaps to go straight into a group competition,” she continued.
“Absolutely, we need to look at that. Do we need to look at that in line with the growth of the women game to say, well, actually, there’s a lot more investment across many leagues?
“But perhaps we should consider a format that’s similar to that of the men’s competition, where it’s group stages from the off, but maybe larger, but also we have to look at the smaller nations and the smaller countries, they deserve the opportunity in the right to be in it as much as any English team does.
“And I think that is important that for for someone who has been in the competition for many, many years, it’s not my place to comment on one team being better than the other.
“This is the Champions League, its tough any team you play against to be honest with you.”
Reflecting on when Hayes and Chelsea had “zero currency” in Europe and has to lose their first few rounds of the competition to gain momentum, she said it takes time for teams to build in this competition.
“What I don’t want to happen here is that there’s a sense of entitlement, just because there’s investment. I think it’s about time you wait for change that no question, but I don’t think we should disrespect the format as it is because I think it takes away from those teams, particularly teams like Paris FC, who have probably worked a number of years to even get here.
“So [the format] needs simplifying. It needs expanding. It needs a Europa League conversation. It needs all of those things, but I believe they’re on the agenda.
“I don’t want to talk disrespectfully about any team in Europe, particularly knowing that we are a team that have lost too many teams in early rounds in our infancy.
“As much as going out of a group stage stage two years ago, I have way too much respect for the competition, and teams across Europe to talk negatively about any of them.”
Taylor’s side failed to earn a spot in either qualifying rounds after finishing fourth in the league – only the top three WSL teams earn a spot. The last two campaigns City have had in the competition ended during the qualification process, losing both times to Real Madrid.
“I don’t think it’s just us in the WSL, other teams have fallen foul,” Taylor said. “It’s a shame because you lose teams of a good standard who should probably be in the group stage.
“It’s obviously an inclusion thing, where everybody has an opportunity. But I think what it does is, we tend to lose probably the better teams at an earlier stage than needs be.”
Taylor had previously critiscied the format after City failed to reach the group stage last season. The last time they qualified for the group stage, they reached the quaterfinal in 2020/21.
“You’ve heard it from me before – probably people weren’t listening then – and now it repeats itself this season,” added Taylor.
“We don’t want to go through that. If we have to, we have to. But we want to win the league, not mess about with qualifiers. We drew Real Madrid and then again the following season, it’s incredible. Our objective is win the WSL and take away that uncertainty.”
The winner of the WSL is not directly guarunateed an automatic qualification spot. There are several caveats due to the coefficent with England ranking fourth. Chelsea earned an automatic place in the group stage after Barcelona’s win as they also won their league. If Wolfsburg had won the league, Chelsea would have been entered into the same qualification draw that Man Utd were in.
One way to keep more top sides playing European football would be to form a Women’s Europa League and remove the qualification process.
However, with massive disparity between the leagues across Europe, this would not fix the problem of keeping a healthy mix of burgeoning and fully developed sides competing.
After Arsenal were knocked out in the earliest stage of qualification, losing to Paris FC on penalties, Gunner’s boss Jonas Eidevall has mixed opinions on introducing a Europa League.
“Yes and no,” he siad. “Yes because it’s a really nice opportunity for growth to come out and compete internationally. We have seen that here at Arsenal, it has given us so much.
“But also no because when we look at the Women’s Champions League from an economic perspective, I don’t think it’s too much of a winning affair for the clubs that are a part of it.”
The Swede believes that the profitability is not there yet for women’s football to warrant a second European competition.
“If you can’t get the Champions League to work on a lucrative economic model, why would it work to have a second competition? If you compare the competition in the men’s game, that’s very much how it works where the Champions League is the one that makes the most revenue then it goes down in descending order,” he continued.
“The Women’s Champions League needs to first get its model right and from there on, when that one is right, you can start expanding with more competitions. But I can’t see the financial sustainability in adding a new European competition right now.”
His comments contradicted Taylor’s previous statements, understanding that because of City’s recent failures and Arsenal’s dismal early exit this season, England’s coefficient is dampened by no fault but the WSL teams’ own poor performances.
“The reality is though, if Wolfsburg had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League final, the WSL wouldn’t have had any direct spots for the group stages as our champions Chelsea would have needed to qualify,” Eidevall added.
“We’re the number four ranking league in Europe [in UEFA’s coefficient rankings]. Why are we number four? Because the English teams have done worse than the Spanish, the German and the French teams have been doing for the last five years. We need to understand that’s our starting point. That’s the reality.
“We can’t say that’s anyone else’s problem except our own as a league. The English teams have not done well enough in Europe to get enough ranking points to get better ways into playing [into the group stages]. Then as a total separate thing, is there a possible demand to play the Champions League with more teams or can the qualifying process be different, with more time in the season etc. – of course there is.
“But that’s a different thing. If we think about where the English team is right now, we’re number four in Europe. We can’t say that’s anyone else’s problem but our own. We need to improve the quality in the league so that when English teams are playing in Europe, they are winning their games.”