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Women's Champions League: Are Chelsea and Arsenal ready to challenge on European stage and topple Lyon?

Arsenal have been drawn alongside Champions League holders Lyon and Juventus in Group C; Chelsea have Real Madrid and PSG in Group A; matches start on October 3

Image: Arsenal and Chelsea are flying the English flag in Europe for the WSL

It's a hot evening in Turin in mid-May. Amandine Henry has just ignited a historic Champions League final with a jaw-dropping opening goal inside the first six minutes. It led to a, somewhat inevitable, Lyon rout.

Not for the first time, Les Fenottes were crowned European Champions - a familiar sight to all those who regularly follow proceedings on the continent. Lyon's dominance is as predictable as it is impenetrable.

Even a heavily-tipped Barcelona side boasting a myriad of highly-decorated stars - some of Europe's most notable talent - failed to make an imprint on Lyon's well-established domain. It was a typically one-sided affair. Lyon have ruled supreme over Europe for nearly a decade now, winning eight of the past 10 trophies on offer.

Vivianne Miedema celebrates her winning goal for Arsenal against Ajax in the Champions League
Image: Vivianne Miedema celebrates her winning goal as Arsenal edge out Ajax in Champions League qualifying

It's a record that few women's sides will ever come close to emulating. They are the female equivalent of Real Madrid in the men's competition. Europe is their metier.

French newspaper L'Equipe have even been known to jokingly dismiss the fact that OL Groupe possesses a men's team, such is the all-conquering success of their women's side.

There are, however, growing signs that the competition gap is narrowing. Change is in the air. A possible coming of age that could serve to disturb or even threaten the established hierarchy as Women's Super League clubs pay closer attention to the very many benefits of European rivalry. Financial incentives alone are encouragement enough, with English clubs traditionally operating on much smaller budgets than those of their European counterparts.

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Arsenal head coach Jonas Eidevall says record attendances are showing more people are becoming interested in women's football

The WSL can only brag one European title to date - Arsenal in 2007 - but England's top tier has been making moves. Domestically, the league is the strongest it ever has been.

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Internationally, the Lionesses demonstrated how the strength of the league translates at Europe's top table. Only one of Sarina Wiegman's triumphant 23-player squad - Rachel Daly of Houston Dash - played their football outside the WSL in the season proceeding Euro 2022. Daly has incidentally made quite the splash since being lured back to the English game from America this season, scoring three goals for Aston Villa in back-to-back wins.

Centralised marketing, regular TV coverage and increased investment have all contributed to the WSL's recent success, but one pertinent question remains, can English clubs now cut it on the European stage?

Will one of Chelsea or Arsenal - England's 2022-23 representatives - be able to break with tradition and outshine Champions League regulars when it really counts?

Emma Hayes' Chelsea are one of the chasing pack. They lost out to Lyon at the semi-final stage in 2019, but only came up marginally short. Earlier that same season, Sam Kerr, who is now a revered name if found on an opposition teamsheet, chose to join Chelsea over Olympique Lyonnais Feminine.

Three seasons have passed since then and the growing belief is that Chelsea are now primed to compete. When they made it to the 2021 final - the same year their male counterparts hoisted the UEFA Champions League trophy in Portugal - their campaign was hit with irregularities due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The game was played behind closed doors. Players were overawed by the enormity of the occasion, having never experienced it before. An unfortunate case of stage fright.

Then-owner Roman Abramovich visited the Chelsea dressing room in the immediate aftermath of that defeat to Barcelona as the squad pledged to fight for a return to the Champions League final. "We'll be back here," they vowed.

The following campaign was tinged with heavier disappointment having not reached the knockout phase, but Hayes' side will now consider themselves better equipped to deliver on their two-year-old promise.

The Hayes era, unrivalled in domestic circles, would reach its crowning glory if capped by European success. No time like the present. Chelsea have added wisely in the summer window and have a squad that can rival most continental outfits. Not to mention they also boast four newly ordained European champions. It's been over a decade since Hayes begun building Chelsea Women from the bottom up and to date it is only the Champions League crown that has evaded her clutches. Time to complete the set?

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Highlights of the Barclays Women's Super League match between Chelsea and West Ham

When quizzed about Chelsea's chances, Hayes told Sky Sports: "We've just got to get better. We're talking about a competition that no English team has won for several years. There's a reason for that, we haven't been near the top teams and our job is to close the gap. We've got to do that by making sure every day on the grass we're better. For us to close the gap, we're going to have to be smarter against those teams."

Arsenal also began to flex their European muscle last term, but ultimately came up short when presented with one of Europe's other indomitable forces, Wolfsburg. The north London side actually rank second in the all-time competition charts for games won and goals scored in the Champions League, behind guess who? Lyon. Nonetheless, they have historic pedigree.

But a double-edged sword applies here. As the WSL gets increasingly competitive, it becomes harder to juggle multiple competitions at full tilt. On the flip side, it also serves as good preparation as English teams attempt to rise to the standards set by the likes of Lyon, Barca and co.

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Check out Arsenal's star player Vivianne Miedema’s best goals from last season

There has been a huge influx of European players to the WSL this summer. It appears to be the destination of choice. Not only does that strengthen the validity of the league but it is also representative of the fact that the WSL is able to rival any other division, or European club, for the game's best talent.

Increased exposure, growing attendances, first-rate facilities and expansive coverage are all reasons why the WSL is fundamentally attractive. And its current leaders, Arsenal, will hope that this is the season they can lead the charge on multiple fronts.

Arsenal captain Kim Little knows stern tests await Jonas Eidevall's side on their European travels this season.

"We've got ourselves up to a point," she said. "We've been more consistent in the Champions League in recent seasons - that's the first stepping-stone but now we want to compete to win. For us the intensity level is higher, and we need to have 11 players on the pitch who are absolutely at the top of their game in order to compete."

When asked if Lyon and Barcelona are too difficult to overcome, she simply replied: "I don't agree."

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