With her contract running down at Manchester City last season, England right-back Lucy Bronze had her pick of clubs. There was interest from clubs in Europe and America's top flight, the NWSL, but she was very clear with her agent: only the best of the best. For Bronze, that meant Lyon or Barcelona, last season's two Champions League finalists.
Bronze had already played for Lyon earlier in her career, winning three Champions Leagues and FIFA's The Best Women's Player award during her time in France, so this time she opted for Barca. Domestically, Jonatan Giraldez's side, who lost to Lyon in last season's Champions League final, have quite literally been unbeatable. They have won 42 matches in a row in Liga F and have lifted the last three league titles.
Barcelona finished top by 24 points last term and were 30 clear of Real Madrid, although there are signs to suggest that gap may not be so big this season. Madrid's improvement has been rapid -- they have not yet beaten Barca, but they have quickly established themselves just below the top ring of clubs in Europe. They have knocked Man City out of the Champions League two years running to make the group stages and reached the quarterfinals last season, losing to Barca in front of a record crowd at Camp Nou.
Real Madrid invested again in the summer, and among those brought in has been Scotland international Caroline Weir, Bronze's former City teammate. They have four points from two European games this season, including a goalless draw against heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain, and are unbeaten in Liga F, five points behind Barca with a game in hand.
On Sunday, Real Madrid host the Catalans in the Clasico. With the world's best player Alexia Putellas and Caroline Graham Hansen among the list of injured players at Barca, Madrid may feel this represents their best chance yet to beat Barca for the first time. But, as Bronze explains exclusively to ESPN, Barca's squad runs deep and they have become the best side in Spain for a reason, although they are able to acknowledge the growth which is also occurring in the capital city.
Bronze spoke about adjusting to life in Barcelona, whether Real Madrid have earned the tag of Clasico rivals and her path from Dominos employee to Champions League powerhouse starter.
ESPN: So, can we call it a Clasico now?
Bronze: Yeah, it is!
ESPN: Sandra Panos told us Madrid had to earn that right, have they?
Bronze: They have improved a lot and shown they are a top team in Spain. They compete in Europe consistently now -- they finish high in the table in Spain consistently. And the games against Barca, I have never played in them but I have watched them, they are competitive games and they have got some world-class players.
ESPN: Are Madrid now the big domestic rivals ahead of Atletico Madrid?
Bronze: Yeah, I think there are a couple of teams that are really strong, like Atletico, like Madrid, like Levante who we just played. But there is a rivalry starting now with Barca and Madrid. I have not been part of it previously but I can feel this time everyone is excited and up for the game.
ESPN: Any added motivation with you facing former teammate Caroline Weir?
Bronze: It's nice to have a familiar face. She's a fantastic player. She is doing really well at Madrid, which is nice to see, but I don't want her to be playing too well at the weekend. I know her qualities as a player, but as a team we will hopefully be able to deal with her.
ESPN: Do you speak?
Bronze: I spoke to her quite a while ago. It's different for me than Caroline. I have already played in different countries before and learned different languages. So I knew what to expect, that's the first kind of initial struggle -- not the football, the culture change. Not understanding everything that is going on in training and having to adapt and get used to that before even thinking about going on the pitch. It was the same for Caz [Caroline], from what I know, but she has settled in pretty well, scoring goals. From the outside it looks like she's doing well.
ESPN: Real Madrid didn't try and sign you on a free in the summer?
Bronze: Was there a call? I don't even remember to be honest. There were only two teams, Lyon and Barca were the best teams in Europe, they were the only teams that would catch my attention. Obviously there were teams in America as well. But I just told my agent I only want the best and the best was Barca and Lyon.
ESPN: You wanted to stay in Europe?
Bronze: Obviously a lot of players go to America, it's a different kind of league to what we have in Europe. It did cross my mind. But I have played at Lyon and was so successful there and the chance to play at another world-class team and live in Barcelona, it was once in a lifetime, I was never going to turn it down.
ESPN: Your dad is Portuguese, you played in France, now in Catalonia in the Spanish league. How are the languages coming along?
Bronze: They say Catalan is similar to French, which I am more fluent in than Portuguese. But both languages have helped me a lot. I have picked up the listening quite easily. But when speaking, I tend to put on a Portuguese or French accent because the words are similar! I hope my Spanish will be fluent within a year.
ESPN: Keira Walsh has come in as well and there are lot of English speakers in the dressing room now.
Bronze: All the foreign players speak English apart from Geyse, who's Brazilian. It is nice to have that little bit of home in the dressing room. A few girls speak English together so we feel comfortable. Obviously it's good for Keira and me to have each other, because we know each other so well. It's been a lot easier to settle in.
ESPN: It's Walsh's first time abroad, and her position, at the base of the midfield as a pivot, is very specialised at Barca. How is she doing?
Bronze: She is settling in well but it will take time. The crucial role in the Barca side has always been in midfield. It's always had the best players, the likes of Alexia, Patri [Guijarro], Aitana [Bonmati], there are so many world-class midfielders that play for Barcelona. And Barca are known for tiki taka, keeping the ball, and it's the midfielders that do that. So for Keira to come into that position is a big ask, but there is no player more prepared and good enough to do that than Keira, from what she has showed with City and England. She is our most technical player with England, our most intelligent player with England, so if anyone can do it, it's Keira.
It's just getting the language and being able to talk on the pitch, there is a lot of communication that needs to happen, so it's about getting that up. She is a quick learner and she is such a likeable personality that even if she doesn't speak the language she has already made such good friends with, take [Claudia] Pina for example, doesn't speak English, but they're like best friends. You're like, 'How are they communicating?' But they get on so well off the pitch and link well on it because of that relationship. Keira has that type of personality.
ESPN: Tell us about the nuance of your role as a right-back at Barcelona.
Bronze: It definitely feels like new way to play the position. I get asked to do different things in different games. We adapt our style depending on who's playing. We have so many world-class players, we have so many games, we rotate a lot. Sometimes I am asked to be more defensive, some times more attacking. It depends on who I am playing with, the relationship I need to have with the player next to me, in front of me or in midfield. Every game is learning something new. It is really good because the coaches do loads of clips with you after the game. Every single player gets their feedback after every single game. I never had that anywhere before. All those details.
ESPN: Do you like that side of the game?
Bronze: I don't like watching games back but if it's just me, I like watching my own performances and seeing if I did something well or not. I think that's the best way to improve, not only to just see the good things, but the bad things and vice versa. It's good that they do that for us, clipping the good and the bad and writing as well what they see and think. And for me they write in English, which is helpful.
Obviously we do analysis at every club I have been at, but never that level of individual insight as consistently as I have here. Every single game is analysed on every individual and you get that feedback personally. We do so much team stuff in training, it's nice to have your own stuff that you can watch at home and improve yourself. If you want to improve individually, then everything is given to you to do that here.
ESPN: Everyone says the training here is more intense than their previous clubs. Is it true or do you just say it?
Bronze: Yeah, it is the intensity. Being at Lyon, the technical ability of the players there was just as good as these Spanish girls. I have played with world-class players, the likes of Dzsenifer Marozsan are among the best I have ever played with in terms of intelligence, touch and ability. But the environment we have in training here is really intense, the way they want to press, play, is a really intense, high level. And it's not just like in one small game, it's everything we do.
I think that's why you look at the core of Spanish players, Alexia etc., and their growth in the last five years, it's because Barca changed the way they trained. They upped the intensity and made these players even better, the likes of Aitana, Patri, Mapi [Leon] -- so many of them that maybe five years ago no one was talking about and now they're among the best in the world. I think it is because the intensity of training here has stepped everyone up a level.
ESPN: Has that surprised you?
Bronze: I expected training and the players to be good, I had played against all of them for Barca or Spain, but it still surprised me, the level, how high it was at. I was at Lyon; the level was high, but the intensity here, it did surprise me that it was so high.
ESPN: And the depth of the talent here, have you seen that before?
Bronze: Lyon was good for developing youth like Selma Bacha, I think she was 18 when I was there, there were a couple of them. The difference at Barca is there are hundreds of them. There are just like clones and clones and clones of these amazing, technical, intelligent players. We had a game [on Thursday] night where we put on three or four kids so we could rest players. In preseason, we had half the younger players come with us and the level did not drop. That's something I don't think I have seen before and certainly not in England. That's credit to the methodology of the training in Barcelona.
ESPN: How has Liga F compared to the Women's Super League and criticism that it's a one-team league?
I think it was the same in Lyon. Lyon were that good that it was hard for the other teams to compete. It's the same in Spain. From the outside, people talk and say the other teams are not good, but I have been pleasantly surprised at the level of some of the teams. And it's tough for them, but we have such a good squad at Barca. It's not just our XI, we can rotate. And to be honest, that's kind of what's happening in England. People say, 'Oh Barca always win,' or 'Lyon always win,' well, Chelsea have always won the league in England yet an English team has not won the Champions League for years and years. Barca and Lyon have.
It depends how you look at it. Lyon won the Champions League so many times but they dominated their domestic league as well because they were that good. It's the same with Barca, they were that good that they could dominate domestically and win the Champions League. If you want to win the Champions League, you probably will be dominating domestically. That is what it takes to compete at the highest level in the Champions League. That is what I have seen from being in Lyon, being in Spain, being in England. That is the level it takes to be that successful and be known as that team that's the best, as Barca and Lyon have been known for.
ESPN: How do you see the Champions League this season?
Bronze: I think it's still early days. Lyon's start especially is purely down to injuries. It is crazy the amount of long-term injuries they have got. They could make another XI with the players that are missing and these players are unbelievable, the likes of Marozsan, Mbock, Hegerberg. ... It's difficult for them, but if they get those players back, and qualify, they will be a big threat.
We have done well, we are still improving, getting our style back and also have players injured, Caro, Alexia, who will hopefully come back second half of the season. Chelsea have done reasonably well, PSG have done OK, Bayern Munich are a top team, Wolfsburg are a top team. It will be tough for whoever gets to the final, we want to get there and lift the trophy. We have what it takes but you never know in football. There are a lot of teams that probably think they have a good chance this year.
ESPN: What's Alexia's role been while she's injured?
Bronze: The nice thing about Barca is we have a number of captains, so there is no pressure for her. Everyone just wants her to focus on getting back fit. I think when you're injured, you should not need to feel like you need to push the team too much. Alexia has been great. I have made quite good friends with her now. She is super focused on getting back fit. She is in and around the team when she needs to be. She is doing well at the minute. I am just excited for her to get back on the pitch because I am yet to play with her.
ESPN: Have you spoken to her about the serious injury you had at the start of your career?
Bronze: I have spoken to her. I know people know about it, but I don't think they know the ins and outs. I told her kind of the story of what has happened to my knees, how it is still a problem these days, but there is nothing I can do about it. I just have to get on with it and work hard. Sharing stories and experiences helps other people and maybe helps her understand her own knee a little bit better.
And sometimes, it's not nice, but to share experiences and know other people have gone through those things, I guess makes you feel a little better that you can come out the other end. I went through all that in my 20s and still managed to make it to the top of my game. She is at the top of her game already, so she can come back at the end of this injury, get herself even higher, do even more, push herself even more and maybe learn a bit about herself that she would not have learned if she was injured.
ESPN: During those moments in your career, when you were injured or when you were studying and working at Dominos, would you have believed you would be sitting here playing for Barcelona and a European champion with England?
Bronze: I was so focused and driven that I have always thought anything is possible and I can achieve anything. But the path to it was probably a very windy path when I think about it back then: being injured, working at Dominos, not really being in favour with England, having zero pounds in my bank account to facilitate any sort of training.
The path was a difficult one, with a lot of obstacles in the way, but the fact I was so driven and motivated, especially at that age, pushed me to now. It is nice to look back to working at Dominos to now being a face of their campaign, to being injured to being a European champion, Champions League winner, best player in the world, everything. It's nice to think about that journey but the journey continues. I will look back on it when I am retired and that's when I will be really quite proud about how it started and ended.
ESPN: A Wembley final with England and now Camp Nou this month with Barcelona. How do you think that will compare?
Bronze: Speaking to the girls who played there last year, I think it will be amazing. It is hard to compare it to England, but I think it will be a similar feeling of these crazy fans that absolutely adore the team. Playing for England and the whole country was behind us, I had never had that feeling before. To come to Barcelona, the fans already have been crazy, they're amazing -- I kind of have that same feeling of what it was like in the Euros with English fans.
I have that with Barca fans every time we play. To have that chance at club level with Barcelona, I am so excited. To have that feeling ... I walked out at Camp Nou when I signed and even just standing in the stadium was crazy. To think we could fill that stadium, playing a big game -- and it just so happens it's Bayern Munich. And with England it was Germany, so there is a resemblance there. I am so looking forward to it.