Is the WSL in trouble? Women's Champions League winners and losers as Arsenal struggle against Ajax

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Stina Blackstenius Arsenal Women 2022-23
The Lionesses may be European champions but England's clubs are toiling, as underlined by Arsenal's draw with Ajax.

Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain – those are just some of the huge clubs that were involved in Women's Champions League qualifying this week. And they didn't have it easy.

A quick glance at the fixtures for these huge clubs and some might've expected relatively stress-free progress to the group stages for them.

And yet, Arsenal were held by an exciting, up-and-coming Ajax side and Juve drew with Denmark's HB Koge, while Bayern and PSG only recorded slender one-goal wins over Real Sociedad and BK Hacken, respectively.

With plenty of drama going on, here's a look at the winners and losers from this week's action...

  1. WINNER: Caroline Weir

    WINNER: Caroline Weir

    It's fair to say things are going quite well for Caroline Weir in Spain.

    The Scot left Manchester City for Real Madrid in the summer and would score her first goal for her new club against her former one, sending City crashing out of the Champions League in the first round of qualifying.

    She has settled into Madrid's team with ease, having been given a flexible role by manager Alberto Toril that seems to suit her down to a tee.

    On Wednesday night, she scored her second and third goals of the season in a 3-0 win over Rosenborg, the first of them an absolute rocket.

    There is a long list of reasons to be excited about what Las Blancas could do this season and Weir's storming start is one of them.

  2. LOSER: The Women's Super League

    LOSER: The Women's Super League

    With the Lionesses having just been crowned champions of Europe, it's clear there are a lot of great things happening with women's football in England right now. However, there are ongoing issues at club level.

    Four of the last eight Women's Champions League seasons lacked an English semi-finalist, and just one Women's Super League club has reached the final in the past 15 years.

    Last year, Manchester City went out in qualifying, Chelsea were eliminated in the group stages and Arsenal bowed out in the last eight. Consequently, England's coefficient has taken a real hit, meaning the automatic group-stage qualification spot allocated to the WSL champions is now at risk.

    With City going out early again this year, Arsenal's 2-2 draw at home to Ajax in the first game of their two-legged tie will have concerned more than just the Gunners' fans.

    Jonas Eidevall and his team did well to turn things around after a poor first half but they will have their work cut out when they go to the Netherlands next week.

    A win won't just be important for Arsenal, but for the whole of the WSL.

  3. WINNER: The Netherlands

    WINNER: The Netherlands

    There was plenty that stood out in Ajax's clash with Arsenal on Tuesday and one was how bright the future is for the Netherlands.

    Victoria Pelova, the 23-year-old who was linked with Arsenal in the summer, was the best player on the pitch in the first half. Romee Leuchter, aged 21, scored twice to strengthen her goal-scoring reputation, following a 31-goal season last term.

    However, the player of the match was arguably Isa Kardinaal, the 17-year-old centre-back who excelled against some of Europe's best forwards.

    With Pelova and Leuchter adding Euro 2022 to their growing list of big experiences this past summer, and Kardinaal having represented her nation at the U17 edition, this Champions League run is only giving them further opportunity to develop into top-class players.

    It hasn't been a great year for the Netherlands' national team, who disappointed at the Euros, but with talents like these coming through – alongside other exciting prospect such as PSV's Esmee Brugts and Twente's Wieke Kaptein – there are reasons to be optimistic about what the next generation might deliver.

  4. LOSER: Scandinavian clubs

    LOSER: Scandinavian clubs

    Once upon a time, Scandinavia ruled Europe.

    It had clubs in all but one of the first seven UWCL finals, with Umea two-time winners. Back then, they had Marta, the greatest female footballer of all time, while many more of the game's greats – such as her compatriot Formiga – were also plying their trade in Sweden.

    However, the rise of clubs with hugely successful men's teams has made things tricky. From a financial perspective, Sweden's finest can no longer compete.

    Scandinavia is still producing top players and has great national teams but the country's stars are moving abroad now in search of a higher standard of football.

    For example, Rosenborg, once a semi-finalist under the name Trondheims-Orn, were dispatched 3-0 on Wednesday by a Real Madrid side that has only existed for two years. In fact, none of the five clubs from Denmark, Norway or Sweden won their first legs.

    There were positive results and performances – Koge drew with Juventus while Hacken troubled Paris Saint-Germain in a 2-1 defeat – but the weaker coefficients Scandinavian countries have today is the reason why their clubs are given these incredibly hard ties in the first place.

    We will see at least one representative from Scandinavia in the group stages, from the winner of the Brann vs Rosengard match-up, and those facing tough second legs could, of course, overcome the odds to join them.

    But qualifying so far has really highlighted how the landscape of women's football has changed.

  5. WINNER: Italy

    WINNER: Italy

    Last season was massive for Italian women's football.

    Juventus emerged from the UWCL's 'group of death' ahead of Chelsea and caused Lyon, the eventual champions, serious problems in the quarter-finals.

    It did wonders for the country's coefficient as this great footballing nation, which made its top division professional ahead of this new campaign, really starts to make its mark in the modern women's game.

    Next week, Juventus host Koge knowing that a win will see them through to the group stage again. The club is unbeaten at home in its last 19 games, winning 14 - with one of those victories coming against Lyon.

    However, it's not Juve's result that makes Italy such a big winner from this round of games. On Wednesday, Roma were victorious in dramatic fashion as Emilie Haavi's 90th-minute goal completed a comeback away at Sparta Prague. They only need a draw at home to progress to the first round proper.

    To have two Italian teams reach that stage would be massive for Italy's continued development and edge the country closer to boosting the number of European places that are available to Serie A.

  6. LOSER: Fans

    LOSER: Fans

    We saw some great attendances during this round of games, with Real Sociedad generating headlines by welcoming 11,443 – a record crowd for a UWCL qualifier – to San Sebastian.

    However, many fans from across the globe were left bitterly frustrated by not being able to watch some truly great games on TV.

    With DAZN's superb coverage only starting at the group stage, the broadcasting of qualifiers is picked up by clubs and local media instead. While some clubs, such as Arsenal, made their games available to everyone for free, only a handful of the other ties were widely available to fans.

    This can't be viewed as anything but a massive missed opportunity, given the men's international break meant that live action was scarce. There was serious potential here to introduce the women's game to new audiences.

    Obviously, as the interest and investment in the UWCL continues to grow, this is something that can hopefully be addressed going forward, in order to fully showcase the thrills and spills that take place when a group-stage place is on the line.