How many times have fans at a women’s football match needed to be escorted past rival supporters by the police?
It’s a rarity, that’s for sure, but it was the case on Saturday evening in Turin, one of the most striking images outside the home of Juventus as Barcelona and Lyon prepared to do battle in the Women’s Champions League final.
Barcelona were fueled by their defeat to the French giants in the 2019 final, a 4-1 hammering that showed the Catalans the level they needed to reach in order to be European champions – a feat they finally achieved last May.
But there would be no revenge here. Instead, it was a statement made by the now eight-time winners of this competition that their continental failure last year was merely a blip.
After a blistering start that included three strikes in the opening 33 minutes, Lyon emerged 3-1 winners in Italy and regained their status atop Europe.
However, Barcelona’s strength cannot be dismissed on the back of a single outing.
On the night, yes, they were not as good as Lyon. The blueprint to beat the Blaugrana was exposed: you press them high, you make them panic and you take your chances.
But it must be remembered that they enjoyed a near-perfect season in all competitions. This felt like the birth of a new rivalry, a back-and-forth set to unfold in the years to come rather than a powerhouse putting an upstart in its place.
It was evident in the build-up to this game that there was a chip on Lyon’s shoulders. The plaudits Barcelona had won in the last 12 months have seemingly overshadowed the achievements of the French side, which have been and will be unmatched.
“There was women’s football before Barcelona, and it was played here for years,” Lyon forward Ada Hegerberg told The team earlier this month.
“We do not have to forget that,” midfielder Damaris Egurrola added, speaking to GOAL.
In the press conference before the game, captain Wendie Renard took exception to the idea that Barcelona were the favorites in Turin.
“It’s the journalists that say we are outsiders,” she said. “We’ve got a final with two teams doing exceptionally well. For me, a final is 50-50. There is no favorite. There is no underdog. ”
There was the utmost respect between both sets of players going into the game, there is no doubt about that. But it’s no surprise that such a build-up created real spice in it.
It wasn’t just the comments made, or the media’s words, but the presence of the fans, both sets so passionate and unwavering in their support for each side, too.
Barcelona fans flooded Turin on Saturday, taking over entire streets with banners, drums and song. Lyon’s fans may have been outnumbered in size, but they made up for the numbers in voice, waving Norway flags in their corner of the crowd as an ode to Hegerberg, the talismanic figure who acted as conductor at times.
As the Lyon goalkeepers came out for the warm-up, they were jeered as if the game was being played in Barcelona. When the teams were read out, it was the same.
That atmosphere lay the foundation for what happened on the pitch. With the referee letting a lot of possible fouls go, it was an incredibly physical game with plenty of bite.
After Lyon had raced into a 3-0 lead – thanks to Amandine Henry’s wonder-strike, Hegerberg’s back post header and Catarina Macario’s close-range finish – Alexia Putellas scored a superb goal to get Barcelona back in the game before half time.
As soon as the ball had hit the back of the net, the Ballon d’Or winner was there to pick it up and run back to her own half, ready for kick-off. Before that though, she tossed the ball in the direction of Hegerberg, stood in the center circle. “Game on,” the gesture suggested.
Unfortunately for Barcelona, it wouldn’t be anything more than a consolation. They tried and tried to get another back – Patri Guijarro incredibly hitting the bar from halfway line – and the desire was evident in every moment on the pitch.
When Griedge Mbock Bathy went down with an injury in the second half, Claudia Pina tried to get her off the ground and, when she did get up, Putellas picked up the bag of the medical team and moved it off the pitch. Moments before, Christiane Endler had pushed away Asisat Oshoala for closing her down more than she would’ve liked.
It was a constant theme throughout the game but, once all was said and done, a baseline of respect remained in place.
When the final whistle went, Putellas laid on the ground by the penalty spot, in the box nearest the thousands of Barcelona fans. Player after player went to console her, followed by staff member after staff member. It took a few minutes until she would pick herself up.
When she did, over walked Hegerberg, one Ballon d’Or winner approaching another. She offered an embrace and a word in her ear.
It was a moment which showed that while there is a rivalry out there, it is a rivalry built on respect. These are two exceptional teams and they help to push one another. For years, it was Wolfsburg that were Lyon’s biggest rival. It’s clear that now, it will be Barcelona.
“The memory of the 2019 final is bitter,” Putellas said this week. “It was a painful final. Our first final ended in the worst possible way.
“It was very painful in the short term but in the long term I think it was good in some ways, because it showed us where we were as a team in terms of the level we needed to become European champions.”
She and Barcelona came back from that and they will come back from this. When they do, it will continue the start of this incredible new battle among two of Europe’s most incredible sides.
For now, though, the title of most incredible belongs to Lyon for a record eighth time – and it’s going to take something quite sensational to take it from them.