MADRID -- Dotted around the outside of the Alfredo di Stéfano stadium, where Real Madrid Femenino play their bigger matches, are replica Champions League trophies. Each facsimile of the cup sits atop a plinth commemorating the year and city in which the men's team won each of their 14 European crowns. It makes for an imposing walk around the perimeter as you make your way to the stands, passing this tribute to the men's team that has been so strong over the decades in the premier European club competition.
While Real were winning their 13th Champions League trophy in May of 2018, the club had neither a women's team nor any plans to set one up, yet the promotion of CD Tacón, a young Madrid-based team, proved to be the catalyst for Real. Only officially playing under the Real badge from the 2020-21 season, the club had already attempted to invest and strengthen the squad in their last season as Tacón.
As with many teams that find themselves in the top tier for the first time, their squad was fragmented between those who could compete for silverware and those who struggled to keep up. Even just in three-and-a-half years, the personnel has changed significantly, with the notable departures of former coach David Aznar and their first marquee signing, Swedish international Kosovare Asllani. However, for a team that has barely begun to crawl on the international level, Madrid are enjoying their second season in the UEFA Women's Champions League and already look a team apart from the one that took its maiden steps last year.
There is a sense of déjà vu and destiny for Las Blancas when you look at their path through the Champions League's early stages, first facing and knocking Manchester City out in the qualification rounds before being drawn into a group with Paris Saint-Germain. Last year, as they were making their European debut and struggling to find their better football under Aznar, the team were gifted one of the less gruelling draws.
Aside from a PSG team that was still singing in attack, they faced Icelandic side Breiðablik and Ukrainian outfit Zhytlobud Kharkiv, leaving the straightforward proposition of beating the teams they knew they could. And indeed they did, though their reward was a quarterfinal meeting with Barcelona that, while enthralling and historic, ultimately spelled the end of their adventure.
This season, Las Blancas have been given a harder task in the Champions League, facing not just PSG again, but Chelsea as well as Albanian champions, Vllaznia. With Vllaznia assumed to finish bottom -- a judgment somewhat reinforced by their 8-0 loss to Chelsea on Wednesday -- the scrap for qualification to the knockouts is on. However, with PSG looking more transitional than their Spanish counterparts and lacking a clear and honest goal threat with their talismanic number nine, Marie-Antoinette Katoto, out injured for the majority of the season, Madrid have the chance to pull ahead.
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When the pair clashed for the first time this season last Wednesday, both could have claimed the three points in Madrid, though a lack of clinical finishing kept the match scoreless. Yet, while PSG were bereft of a clear centre-forward to get onto the balls put in by Les Parisiennes, Real were just without their finishing boots.
Aside from the usual comings and goings from one season to the next, Las Blancas have shown huge improvement under Aznar's successor, Alberto Toril -- he's certainly not the best coach in Europe, but he understands well enough how to set his players up. Indeed, when PSG clashed with Madrid last season, the team were still labouring under a coach that didn't know how to set his team up to maximise their ability; this season, things are far different.
It's not just about their system suiting the players, either, but about them finally tapping into being one of the most recognisable clubs in world football.
Real have the ability of leaning on their name when it comes to strengthening their squad. Indeed, summer signing Caroline Weir has spoken about idolising Zinedine Zidane when she was younger, as well as her very first kit being a Real one when she was still in primary school. The Madrid team is littered with stars that supported the club when they were growing up, drawn in by the prospect of playing for a team they couldn't turn down, an intangible that translates to the club being able to sign players many can not.
Indeed, that ability to sign some of the better players on the continent has seen them leapfrog most of the sides in Spain, not just those rivals outside of Liga F, weakening their competition in the process. However, while some signings like Weir and the inspirational Athenea del Castillo have been canny, Real have been guilty of just trying to sign good players without the bigger picture of how they fit together in mind. (If you follow the men's team, that was also the issue with their long-heralded "Galacticos" policy.)
For example, anyone who's been following Real Sociedad for the past five years could tell you that Nahikari García was a key part of their team and has attacking ability in spades, yet in a team that had also just signed Esther González, who scored 30 league goals the previous year, the two are struggling to gel. The good news for Madridistas is that, in time, the squad has continued to take a clear shape and the signings made over the summer make sense within what Toril is trying to do. It means they're taking to the pitch with more and more competence as well as ability (and sauce).
Unlike this time last year, there is no need for Real to fear PSG, and although part of that is due to what's happened in Paris, their own growth can't be overlooked in their quest for European glory. So, while Las Blancas haven't qualified for the latter rounds of the Champions League just yet, their rapid growth -- combined with Florentino Pérez's determination to have a women's selection that is as competitive as the highly successful men's side -- suggests it's only a matter of time before the women's team have their own Champions League trophy outside the Alfredo di Stéfano as well.