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Women’s International Champions Cup: Lyon looks to hold off upstart Atletico Madrid

Tournament newcomers against the best women’s side in Europe

Olympique Lyonnais v FC Barcelona Women - UEFA Women’s Champions League Final
Ada Hegerberg (far right) scores in the Champions League final against FC Barcelona.
Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

On Thursday afternoon in Cary, NC, the Women’s International Champions Cup kicks off its opening match between Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, the most dominant club team in women’s soccer, and Club Atlético de Madrid Femenino, a rising start in Europe.The tournament represents a preseason opportunity for the European clubs to test their skills in friendly matches while also attempting to prove their respective nations’ dominance in women’s football.

The first match of the tournament pits the most decorated women’s soccer club in the world against an opponent that has only been relevant for the past few seasons, and it doesn’t project to be a particularly competitive match. Lyon has emerged victorious in the last four UEFA Women’s Champions League tournaments while Madrid has only participated three times in their history. They have never progressed past the round of 16.

New-look Madrid hopes to make a statement

Las Rojiblancas are at a notable disadvantage when it comes to women’s club soccer in Europe. While teams like Lyon have had years to groom talent and negotiate for the top players in the world, Atletico has only really been pushing for glory for about four years now. In that time, they’ve certainly built a team that can regularly crush their fellow Iberian squads, but expanding to success outside of Spain is a taller order.

The opportunity to play a preseason match against the likes of Lyon is a valuable learning opportunity for Madrid. They’ve added a myriad of new players during the offseason, but they’ve also lost lost one of the best Spanish footballers in Jenni Hermoso.

Despite having one of Spain’s top-flight goalkeepers - Dolores Gallardo - between the pipes since 2012, Madrid opted to add Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal in July. You might remember that name if you watched to 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, but van Veenendaal was in goal for the Netherlands in the final against the United States. Despite conceding twice in that match, she was awarded the Golden Glove denoting her as the best goalkeeper in the tournament. She will presumably take over the starting role and represents on of the best goalkeepers in women’s football.

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France
Newly-acquired goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal accepts the Golden Glove award at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup final.
Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Unfortunately for the goalkeeper, Las Colchoneras don’t boast the most intimidating defense, and their lack of star power is likely going to be exposed on the back side. They will try to work the ball and play possession to keep the game even, but this game will be a tough test for the defense.

Atletico Madrid has attempted to improve their fortunes by adding English forward Toni Duggan to the front line, but she has big shoes to fill after Madrid’s leading goalscorer for 2018, Jenni Hermoso, left the team. Madrid also lost their second leading striker, Esther González. Duggan will need to combine with forward Olga Garcia to recover the 37 goals that were lost when Hermoso and González left.

It’s hard to see Madrid coming away with even a one-goal deficit in this match. While they did win the 2018–19 Primera División Femenina de Fútbol, Barcelona was clearly the stronger team in the league. Barca made it all the way to the Champions League final where they suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of Lyon.

The Champions of Europe take the pitch once again

When comparing rosters, it’s really no wonder that Les Lyonnaises are the best side in Europe. From top to bottom, the roster is a who’s who of women’s European footballers. They lay claim to Lucy Bronze, Englands golden girl and one of the best wingbacks in the world. They have Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, who has scored 193 goals in her 165 appearances for Lyon. There’s Dzsenifer Marozsán, one of Germany’s top women’s players in team history. Or maybe you prefer Saki Kumagai, the Japanese defender and captain of her national team. Those are just a few of the stars on the team from outside of France.

Then you have the French contingent, including starting goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, sensational centerback Wendie Renard, skillful midfielders Amandine Henry and Amel Majri, and forward

France v USA: Quarter Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France
Le Sommer (9) is challenged by USWNT defender Kelley O’Hara at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Photo by Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Le Sommer. It is almost certain that every single one of Lyon’s starters on Thursday also started one of the knockout games at the World Cup in June. No other team in this tournament can make that claim.

So, while I don’t want to be entirely dismissive of the need for sound strategy in this match, Lyon represents the pinnacle of what money can buy when it comes to a women’s soccer team...well, as long as you aren’t looking for American players. Anything can happen in the preseason, but this should be a game where Lyon can come out, have fun, and earn an easy win. That’s what happened in the opening round last year at the ICC Women’s Tournament, and that’s what is almost certain to happen this time.

Lyon did make two notable additions in the offseason. The first was signing English forward Nikita Parris. The speedy forward was brought in to challenge Dutch forward Shanice van de Sanden as an outside attacker at the top of Lyon’s formation. The second addition was also from England. Just a week ago, defender Alex Greenwood was signed and Lyon paid a 40,000 pound transfer fee to her old club Manchester United. Those two additions are unlikely to change much of the complexion of the team, but it never hurts to get better.