'One of the strongest teams in Europe' – Real Madrid one to watch in the Women’s Champions League
Real Madrid’s women’s team only celebrated its second birthday in July, but when the Women’s Champions League group stage draw took place in October, many members of Europe's elite wanted to avoid Las Blancas.
That's hardly surprising. Madrid knocked Manchester City out in the qualifiers last summer before repeating the feat this season.
They even gave Barcelona a run for their money in last campaign’s quarter-finals, taking the lead in the first leg and silencing the historic Camp Nou crowd for a brief moment in the second.
But Madrid look even better this season.
They need to be, too, as this year’s competition is going to be their biggest test yet – with the draw having placed them in a ‘group of death’ alongside Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.
It’s no secret that Real got lucky at this stage last year.
They were pooled with PSG, yes, but they landed the weakest team from Pot 2 in Iceland’s Breidablik, meaning second place always looked like it was reserved for the Spaniards.
🤍 𝐇 𝐀 𝐋 𝐀 𝐌 𝐀 𝐃 𝐑 𝐈 𝐃 🤍 pic.twitter.com/9beA4nD1bu— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadridfem) October 23, 2022
It was a good job, too, as the first half of last season was a disaster for this team.
Amid reports of an unsettled dressing room, Real won just four of their opening 11 league games – a run that cost head coach David Aznar his job in late November.
It almost cost the club a place in this season’s Champions League, too, with Madrid languishing in 10th place in the table at the time.
But in came Alberto Toril, the former midfielder making minor tweaks that stabilised the defence and put players such as Teresa Abelleira and Maite Oroz in positions that got the best out of them. It helped the team win 12 of their last 15 games to finish third.
Then, this summer, the club built on that promise with signings to help take this team to the next level.
No arrival has done that more so than Caroline Weir, who has seven goals and three assists in her first six games.
Crucially, she scored the goal that eliminated City – the club she left to move to Madrid. In fact, she netted four of Las Blancas’ six goals on their way to the group stages.
Her arrival highlights how the name this club has can be such a useful tool in crafting a top side, too.
"Real Madrid was the first team I followed since I was a little girl,” Weir said upon signing.
“When I was five years old, I bought my first kit: an old white shirt with Zidane's No.5.
"The five-year-old girl in me was very excited [to come here] and you can't say no to Real Madrid, the best club in the world.”
Add her game-changing qualities to a squad that already has a relentless goal-scorer in Esther Gonzalez and a future superstar in Athenea del Castillo and they are dangerous.
Alaves head coach Mikel Crespo described Real as a side with “enormous individual quality and a lot of attacking power”.
Sadly for him, he was proven right when they came from a goal down to beat his team 7-1 earlier this month.
Iraia Iturregi, the coach of Athletic Club, went even further in her praise.
"They are one of the strongest teams in the league and, with the signings they have made, I would go as far as to say that they are also one of the strongest in Europe," he said.
However, despite the growth of this group in its weapons and in the maturity gained by last season’s European adventure, it still has its weaknesses. That’s to be expected, of course, when a team is only two years old.
Whether it’s Real’s susceptibility to high pressing at times, the odd mistake that puts them on the back foot or the tendency for players to lose their heads and force too many passes when the team needs a goal, there’s still plenty of room for them to grow.
The recent absence of Weir, due to a slight knock, has also created concern about where the creativity comes from when she is not there, despite great depth and variety in Toril’s midfield options.
This season’s Champions League will be a great yardstick of how much they have already developed, though, not least because they will come up against that PSG team that beat them so comfortably at this stage last year – 4-0 in Paris and 2-0 in Madrid.
"The Champions League is a very important competition for our club, for us, and we continue to take steps every day, to grow," Toril said last week.
It’s a statement that sums up where Real are at this point. This team is not the finished article by any means, but they will be feared even more so this year than last – and rightly so.
They’ll need to justify that reputation to get out of this group, too.