When the nine jets of the Frecce Tricolore swooped low over the Stadio del Tricolore in Reggio Emilia to add multi-coloured smoke trails to the pageantry and rich hues of the opening ceremony, few would have predicted that the airborne ‘arrows’ were pointing towards an evening of drama described by Olympique Lyonnais midfielder Amandine Henry afterwards as “an emotional rollercoaster”. Long stretches of this final might have suggested that the French club were enjoying a smooth ride towards a third European title. But football at this level rarely offers such luxuries.
As soon as the Hungarian referee, Katalin Kulcsár, signalled for the ball to start rolling, it became evident that the two coaches had decided to make a few waves. Gérard Prêcheur had opted to step away from team norms by lining up his red-shirted players in a 1-3-1-4-2 formation with centre-backs Henry, Wendie Renard and Griedge M’Bock Bathy protected by Saki Kumagai as the team’s controlling and balancing midfielder.
Ralf Kellermann’s VfL Wolfsburg may have been wearing their familiar white-and-green strip but positional permutations gave his team a less familiar look too as they lined up in a 1-4-5-1 formation. Babett Peter was switched to centre-back to operate in tandem with Nilla Fischer, and the central duo were accompanied by Lara Dickenmann on the right and Isabel Kerschowski on the left, both of whom had been more frequently seen in midfield roles rather than as full-backs. Élise Bussaglia occupied the most withdrawn position in the densely populated midfield with Vanessa Bernauer and Lena Goessling to her right and left respectively and the wide positions filled by Anna Blässe and Alexandra Popp. Up front, the energetic Zsanett Jakabfi was the willing lone striker. There were frequently 30 metres between the Hungarian attacker and her nearest team-mate as she ran this way and that in attempts to pressurise the sure-footed Lyon defenders into mistakes.
Prêcheur’s decision to field three at the back effectively prevented the Wolfsburg midfield from capitalising on a numerical advantage. OL’s composed possession play, based on nimble-footed technique, allowed them to twist and turn away from pressure; to attack with neat, attractive combination moves; and to push Wolfsburg firmly on to the back foot. With Louisa Necib and Camille Abily powering forward through the central channels, wing-backs Amel Majri on the left and Pauline Bremer on the right scorched the grass in the wide areas and it was the latter who helped Ada Hegerberg break the deadlock with just under a dozen minutes on the clock. Kumagai fed the ball into the path of Bremer, who surged past Kerschowski and cut the ball back from the byline for Hegerberg to sidefoot home her 13th goal of the campaign.
Such was Lyon’s domination that Wolfsburg struggled to find any sort of response save for a sudden flurry of corners around the half-hour mark. Instead, they were obliged to focus on deep defending as goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and her back three built calmly from the back and Lyon penetrated fluently through the thirds. Eugénie Le Sommer linked the midfield with target striker Hegerberg and Almuth Schult had to showcase her goalkeeping skills between the Wolfsburg posts, notably from an impudent Hegerberg back-heel and from Le Sommer at point-blank range.
Being pushed so deep into the defensive third gave the German team such limited options when it came to playing out that captain Fischer, trying to provide leadership from the back, gestured furiously for her team-mates to hold a higher line and, at least, create a scenario more conducive to counterattacking.
Kellermann’s first change came after 59 minutes when he sent on Ramona Bachmann to replace the flagging Jakabfi and inject greater pace into Wolfsburg’s play. With Fischer’s body language still denouncing a lack of forward options, Kellermann moved again, introducing Tessa Wullaert in place of midfielder Bernauer to accompany Popp up front. With this, Wolfsburg’s formation morphed into a 1-4-4-2 but Lyon still retained the upper hand. Indeed, with Kumagai on her way to UEFA’s Player of the Match award by breaking up opposition attacks and – in typically composed fashion – helping her team retain the ball with her sensible passing, Lyon seemed comfortably en route to victory.
As the clock ticked down, Prêcheur made two adventurous changes, sending on striker Lotta Schelin to replace Le Sommer and then, when the excellent Bremer took a knock, replacing the right-back with Élodie Thomis, a player with a greater attacking inclination. Within three minutes, Wolfsburg exploited the space behind her. Kerschowski, running through unchecked, delivered a high cross which eluded Bouhaddi’s outstretched fist and landed nicely on the head of Popp just beyond the far post. Wolfsburg’s resolute defending and refusal to raise the white flag had earned them a late and unexpected equaliser, which tilted the psychological balance of the game in their favour.
When extra time commenced, it became evident that the 88th-minute blow to the jaw had left Lyon groggy. Attacking in a 1-4-3-3 formation – and with enough players now forward to permit an effective high press – Wolfsburg called Bouhaddi into some serious action. Abily was booked for a foul on Bachmann. The German team, after so long with the whiff of defeat in their nostrils, scented a chance to win. Now it was Lyon’s turn to search for mental strength – and they found it. They regained something of their passing fluency as the first period of extra time came to a close and once more threatened Schult’s goal. Her performance suggested that she would be a formidable opponent if the final were to end with a shoot-out. And it did.
With the penalties taking place in the north goal – which seemed at odds with the position of the setting sun – Bouhaddi was the first to take up position between the posts, only to be beaten by Popp. When Schult saved from Hegerberg, the pendulum appeared to have swung again in Wolfsburg’s direction. But, after the next four penalties had hit the net, Bouhaddi flung herself to her left to save from Fischer and redress the balance. When Elise Bussaglia stepped up to take Wolfsburg’s fifth spot-kick, the Lyon keeper produced a repeat performance and the spotlight duly switched to the composed figure of Kumagai, the Player of the Match who converted coolly the winning penalty.
As the Lyon squad sprinted away to bury Bouhaddi in a celebratory heap, the Wolfsburg players stood in shell-shocked silence in the centre circle, as if collectively hit by shots from a stun-gun. They had battled through long periods of survival and damage limitation; they had clawed their way into a potentially winning position; yet, in the final reckoning, the emotional roller-coaster had led them only to heartbreak. It was Lyon savouring the lap of honour, their vengeance for the 2013 final loss to Wolfsburg complete.