When the draw for the quarterfinals of the Women's Champions League was made at the end of last year, there was a hopeful buzz of expectation over all four ties. With the first legs now in the books -- the return fixtures will be played this Tuesday and Wednesday -- it's hard to be disappointed.
Arguably, the most intriguing of the four ties was Bayern Munich vs. PSG, both teams the reigning champions in their domestic leagues and clear representatives of their national teams -- in short, a match with an air of Germany vs. France to it.
Despite their superiority in attack on the night, the ball stubbornly refused to drop in Bayern's favour, and every time they looked like they were on the cusp of a goal, Marie-Antoinette Katoto managed to find one for the visitors. Klara Buhl's thumping free-kick late in the day reinjected the spice back into the tie and has given the Bavarians something to build upon next week.
Based on the football in the first leg -- and in defiance of the final score -- Munich are the slight favourites, but to progress, they would need to do something no German team has ever done and beat PSG in Paris. Not only is history not on their side, but the sheer cut and thrust of PSG's attack can be too much for any team to bear when the Parisiennes get it right. Indeed, attack may just be the best form of defence for both, with PSG's ability to overload the wide areas likely to be key should they advance.
In a second leg that should be in the balance all the way to the full-time whistle, fans should keep a watchful eye on how Jens Scheuer utilises his bench. The Bayern coach has an abundance of attacking options, all of which offer a slightly different way of getting at a tiring PSG defence.
Real Madrid 1-3 Barcelona
In what was always likely to be the more lopsided of the four ties, Barcelona squared off against Real Madrid just nine days after hitting the same opposition for five on the day they claimed the league title. Yet, to the shock of not just Barcelona but observers most around the world, the hosts were the team on top at the start, a fact hammered home by Olga Carmona's eighth-minute goal.
Unable to find their natural rhythm and style they've become so well-known for, Barcelona needed not just the break to try to find themselves, but a VAR-awarded penalty right at the start of the second half. The penalty, coolly dispatched by Alexia Putellas, shifted the momentum of the match, and Real's composure and diligent press was replaced by frustration and a fading resolve. Claudia Pina's low strike inside the clustered box 10 minutes from time finally tipped the scales in favour of the Catalans, before Alexia's stoppage-time chip effectively put the tie to bed.
For all the noise of a blowout before the match, Real managed to produce one of the best performances of their short existence, but once again, the worry has returned that the second leg -- to be played at a sold-out Camp Nou -- could turn ugly fast. Admittedly, Barcelona are dealing with a mini injury crisis and while Pina's introduction at the break could be painted as a masterstroke by Jonatan Giraldez, the simple fact is that he needed to change something and had few options. Conversely, Real have more depth available and will be desperate not to be Barcelona's chew toy yet again.
The Catalan midfield of Patri Guijarro, Alexia and Aitana Bonmati remains one of the most talented anywhere in women's football, and if they can gel as they so oft do, the match is likely to only go one way.
There are few kind ways of describing the first hour of this tie from a Juventus point of view, as the hosts looked entirely overawed by the European giants who'd showed up at the Allianz Stadium. For a team who had never won a Champions League match before this season, Juventus had been the side to defy the odds this campaign, navigating their way out of a group that had both Chelsea and Wolfsburg in it.
Drawn against seven-time UWCL winners Lyon -- the same Lyon who had knocked them out of the competition at the first stage last season -- few had much hope for the Italian champions. Indeed, for that first hour in Turin, the Bianconere were a mess; not just pushed back and forced to defend for their lives, but barely able to string four passes together whenever they attempted to break free of Lyon's suffocating attack.
U.S. international Catarina Macario's well-taken header had given the visitors the lead and the pace early in the match, but a combination of poor finishing and death-defying defending kept Lyon within reach. The turning point was very palpably Ellie Carpenter's straight red card just after the hour mark, the dismissal reducing Lyon to 10 and finally sparking a white-hot fire of confidence in Juventus. Instantly, the hosts rattled the bar and finally began to look a dangerous team.
Both Juventus goals -- converted by Cristiana Girelli and Agnese Bonfantini -- were born from mistakes a usually unflappable Lyon don't make as well as a newfound determination from the hosts, with more than a touch of the super-sub by Joe Montemurro thrown in for good measure. The Australian coach, in his first season with the Bianconere, has consistently made the right substitutions at just the right time throughout the competition.
Heading into a second leg a goal down, there are few who would or could write off Lyon. The expected return of Ada Hegerberg to the starting XI -- the Norwegian was unavailable through illness on Wednesday -- should be the difference-maker from the first match to the second. For all their attacking prowess, Lyon have failed to convert their chances on a handful of occasions this season -- a very un-Lyon-like problem that manager Sonia Bompastor has yet to remedy. The only certainty going into the tie is that if Juventus are to continue their most unexpected of Champions League runs, they will need to be at their absolute defensive best.
Arsenal 1-1 VfL Wolfsburg
The last of the four ties to be played had plenty to live up to when it got underway in north London on Wednesday and, respective of what had gone before, it was probably the least exciting for those watching. That's not to say it was a bad match by any stretch, but for large parts, it was two teams cancelling each other out.
The two goals came from lapses in judgment by defenders, with both Wolfsburg's Tabea Wassmuth and Arsenal's Lotte Wubben-Moy allowed too much time and space in front of goal to make their mark. For all their dominance over the past decade, Wolfsburg have been undergoing a personality change this season, moving to a more fluid and counterattacking unit, which kept them dangerous throughout.
Lacking a touch of bite in attack, Arsenal will not just need to produce a better return for their offensive efforts in Germany, but will have to be mindful of the speed at which Wolfsburg can advance up the pitch. With a superior history in the Champions League and a less taxing schedule ahead of the second leg -- only playing once, rather than twice as they did ahead of the first leg -- the odds favour the former winners. With five of her nine UWCL goals this season having come against English teams, current competition top goal scorer, Wassmuth with her intelligent movement and nose for a goal, could again be the difference maker.