Livescore Thursday, April 25
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Time stood still as Alexia Putellas looked at her reflection in the gleaming silver of the Women’s Champions League trophy.

So much sacrifice, effort and suffering after almost a year away from the pitch through injury.

She took a moment to herself, pausing for a breath. She gave it a kiss. Another kiss.

One step, two.

She approached her team-mates, waiting impatiently, bent down and lifted the trophy high. Gold and silver confetti showered the new European champions.

If you go by the script of the last two Women’s Champions League finals, the team that starts the fastest wins.

In last year’s version, Lyon’s Amandine Henry scored a thunderbolt of a goal in the sixth minute. Barcelona were not prepared to concede so early, let alone to trail 3-0 after 33 minutes. It threw them off and they were unable to react. Their performance showed psychological fragility.

So when Wolfsburg’s Ewa Pajor picked Lucy Bronze’s pocket and fired a rocket into the net in the third minute of the 2023 final on Saturday, it seemed like a case of deja vu.

“Myself and Frida (Rolfo) haven’t played a game for five weeks,” said Bronze after the game, black sunglasses hanging upside down below her chin. “This is my first game after (knee) surgery. It’s not an excuse; the pitch was a little bit drier than I expected. Everybody makes mistakes.”

Bronze, however, said the error didn’t affect her. “You just have to get on with it,” she said.

Barcelona’s normally-composed midfield maestro Aitana Bonmati let out a rare shout of frustration when she was caught offside. She began to gesticulate, encouraging her team-mates.

“Last year I felt very bad because of how the whole season went and how the fans travelled to (the final’s venue) Turin,” she had said before this weekend’s game in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. “I was very disappointed not to give them the Champions League.”

But when Alexandra Popp’s header put Wolfsburg 2-0 up in the 37th minute, two-time Ballon d’Or winner Putellas, who was on the bench on Saturday having just recovered from her ACL knee injury, looked on the verge of tears. The stadium atmosphere was flat, the Catalan spectators, usually so vibrant, had been silenced.

Following that 3-1 loss to Lyon a year ago, Putellas vowed to the fans that Barcelona would win the 2023 Champions League “no matter what”. But going into half-time against Wolfsburg, that looked unlikely.

The players rushed to the dressing room when the whistle for the interval blew. The team’s aim, after the 2022 final defeat, was to become stronger psychologically. It was time to prove it.

“If there’s any team that can come back from 2-0 down, it’s this team, with these players.”

That was the rousing speech in the dressing room from Putellas, who usually wears the captain’s armband but was yet to play a minute.

Barcelona knew they had the quality. They had created more chances than Wolfsburg in that first half, registering a superior xG (2.7 to 0.4), taken the greater number of shots (15 to three) and dominated possession (67 per cent to 33).

Their coach Jonatan Giraldez told the players they had to be more clinical and more aggressive at both ends of the pitch. The only tactical change was Mariona Caldentey, deployed as a false nine in the first half, swapping positions with Salma Paralluelo on the left wing.

“At half-time, there was no one who doubted that we were going to come back,” said Irene Paredes.

“Most of all,” said forward Caroline Graham-Hansen, “it was in our heads — ‘If we want to win it, we have to do it now, together’.”

“We went out and believed that,” added England international Keira Walsh. “The coach (Giraldez) told us to keep believing in ourselves. It was getting that bit in the final third right.”

Although a crowd dominated by fans from Catalonia were nervous in the second half, the Barcelona players knew what they had to do. “We were so determined,” said Norway international Graham-Hansen. “You could see it on our faces. We knew we had the quality. We had to keep calm.”

Within three minutes of the second half starting, Barcelona finally hit their stride. Patri Guijarro, an unsung hero of this team who has played three different positions in three consecutive Champions League finals (centre-back, defensive midfielder and inside attacker) struck two goals in two minutes.

“She has been underrated for so long,” said Walsh. “Such a special player. She’s the best player in the world.”

Fridolina Rolfo’s winner in the 70th minute completed Barcelona’s comeback. It showed a different side to this team that we have never seen before. They are now a more patient and mature side, who have learned from their “traumatic”, in Putellas’ words, defeat to Lyon last year. They did not let the emotion of the occasion override them. This was a mental victory as much as a footballing one.

“We are a team that knows how to manage these situations better,” Caldentey said before the final. “We have learned not to stress if we don’t have the ball.”

The club provides a team psychologist to help combat these scenarios and manage nerves. “The more nervous you get the week before, the more stress you will have during the final,” said Caldentey. “All this preparation helps.”

When the full-time whistle blew, Barcelona players hugged in celebration, bobbing up and down in a tight-knit circle.

Geyse Ferreira was the first to start crying.

She hadn’t had an easy year. Her appearance in January’s 9-0 Copa del Reina win over Osasuna caused the team to be eliminated from the competition because they fielded an ineligible player. That weighed on a player in her debut season after a summer move from Madrid CFF. The tears were short-lived, she soon tied the flag of her Brazilian homeland around her waist and began to dance.

“This team needed to do different things,” said Sandra Panos, their goalkeeper. “We were afraid of the previous finals but we were able to find a way to win.”

“I was so relieved,” said Graham-Hansen. “It was a hard two weeks for me to be able to play today and help the team.”

This Champions League triumph was all the sweeter because this time the team could celebrate conquering Europe with their family and friends. The 2021 final — when Barcelona thrashed Chelsea 4-0 — was played behind closed doors in the Swedish city of Gothenburg due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Now, players sought out their loved ones in the stands.

The most emotional was Giraldez. The coach became a father for the first time eight days earlier. He ran to fetch his wife and when he saw Cies, their newborn son, he burst into tears.

“He is the youngest person in the stadium,” Giraldez said with a smile.

Walsh found her parents and agent, Putellas her sister and mother, centre-back Paredes cried when she hugged her partner and then teared up again when speaking to the media in the mixed zone. “My family is here,” she said. “They know what it’s like to reach finals and lose them.”

Walsh and Bronze hugged England legend Jill Scott, who was working on the final as a pundit for broadcaster DAZN. England’s 2022 European Championship-winning captain and Walsh’s best friend Leah Williamson, camcorder in hand, waved from the stands alongside her Arsenal team-mate Lia Walti.

Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline echoed around PSV’s Philips Stadium, a specific request from Walsh and Bronze, as did Queen’s We Are the Champions.

But right after that came a song which surprised the German and international audiences.

The strains of the Sardana — a Catalan dance in which a circle of people hold hands with their arms raised and dance with their feet — were unfamiliar to those from outside Barcelona’s home region. As were the Catalan lyrics. The song was Coti x Coti (Gossip For Gossip) by The Tyets. The players chose that one to be played on Saturday, and it has been a favourite this season in the dressing room. Rosalia’s Despecha, from the album Motomami, was another track on the playlist.

“Happy faces everywhere,” said Graham-Hansen, summing up the ambience.

Inside the dressing room, defender and designated DJ, Laia Codina, led the celebrations, just as she did after that 2021 Champions League final win over Chelsea — Barcelona Women’s first European title. Spanish and Catalan music rang out from her boombox as the players sang and danced, munching on pizza with truffle oil, beers in hand.

“Laia is the DJ — I’m actually losing my voice for singing,“ Walsh said. She couldn’t finish her sentence before the team danced through the mixed zone, sunglasses on, singing “Campeones”, flags tied at their waists, scarves around their heads, boombox thumping. Bonmati, wearing a bandana and carrying an FC Barcelona picture almost twice the size of her, was one of the last to board the bus.

Codina, a Barcelona scarf around her head, had the loudspeaker dangling from her shoulder.

“The Catalan and Spanish girls are a little bit crazier than the English girls,” said Walsh, whose hair had been dyed blue and red before she showered. “I can’t tell you everything that went on in the changing room but it’s a good vibe. It’s a little bit wilder than I’m used to.”

“Claudia Pina has been one of the special acts of this evening,” said Bronze. “There are some special dances and songs in Spain that we do all the time. Me and Keira don’t really know the words, but it’s a good laugh.”

Bronze’s dream when she joined from Manchester City last summer was to win her fourth Champions League. “Everybody knows that I’m always hungry to win trophies,” she said. “There’s no better stage that you want to get to. Having had surgery, the only focus was to make it back for the final.”

Switzerland international Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic interjected then, shouting from across the room: “Lucy, we’re going to miss our flight!”

The team returned to Eindhoven airport for their chartered flight to Barcelona on Saturday evening. Beer cans in hand, the party continued on the runway and onto the plane, players singing and banging on the overhead luggage compartments. Barcelona president Joan Laporte told the team upon their arrival back in Catalonia that they symbolised the essence of the club.

Meanwhile, Williamson and Walti took a separate flight to Barcelona to join the private after-party at Sutton Club, a nightclub with a reggaeton lounge.

During all the celebrations, there were many references to the number two. Players showing two fingers might have looked like a ‘V’ for victory, but it wasn’t.

There is a theory surrounding the number two that has haunted the team all season. Fans, since the beginning of the season, have been feeding the rumour that this was the year Barcelona Women would win their second Champions League, seeing references to the number two everywhere. Some examples are that it has been two years since the first Champions League in their history, that Putellas has won her second Ballon d’Or and also taken that award for the second year in a row.

The theory caught with the players. It’s a superstitious dressing room — on the way to winning their first Champions League, they knocked on wood for good luck whenever they saw any.

Saturday’s final did little to disprove the theory: Barcelona had to come back from two goals down; Guijarro — who wears the No 12 shirt — scored two goals, did it in two minutes, and the first of them came in the second minute of the second half.

“On special days we are used to taking small beliefs to take them into our minds to give us strength for that day,” Guijarro said in the post-match press conference. “With the theory of two, we have found another belief that doesn’t make you win, but it gives you a good vibe that always adds up and makes us very united. We’ve talked about it a lot this week. In Eindhoven, whenever we saw a two, we always pointed it out.”

“The theory of two has been fulfilled,” Panos said after the match while hugging Mapi Leon in the mixed zone.

“Someone created it, and in the end we believed it,” Leon replied, as the pair left, saying they were “the galactic duo”.

Believe it or not, it seems to be a thing in the dressing room.

“We’ll party until the morning and enjoy the vacation,” said Graham-Hansen. “It’s just pure joy.”

The players presented the trophy to the packed crowd in the Plaza Sant Jaume by Barcelona’s city hall on Sunday and gathered on the balcony of the Generalitat, the seat of Catalonia’s government, each having their moment to take the microphone, despite some husky voices from all that partying. It used to be the place of reference for the club’s celebrations, leaving memorable moments in history.

It was from the same balcony that Jose Mourinho, a future Real Madrid head coach but then an assistant to Bobby Robson at the Camp Nou, said after the men’s team won the 1997 Copa del Rey: “Today, tomorrow and always with Barca in my heart”, and then where Luis Figo, who would controversially leave Barcelona for arch-rivals Real in 2000, had said: “Madrid crybabies, salute the champions.”

It is an iconic spot for the club, although the men’s team have not celebrated titles there since 2003. This was also the first time for the women’s team, again because of the pandemic two years ago.

Barcelona faced their worst nightmare in Eindhoven — a repeat of that first half in Turin a year earlier — and they met the challenge head-on.

They say every big team needs a great comeback. Barcelona’s women now have theirs.

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)



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