Femení top Atlético, Tighten Race at the Top

Photo Courtesy: fcbarcelona.com

Toni Duggan didn't start against Atlético Madrid, but her winner in the 91st minute earned the kind of result that could propel Barcelona Femení to another level this season. Down 1-0 after a 56th minute header from Kenti Robles, manager Fran Sánchez struck gold with his substitutes. Aitana Bonmatí came on alongside Alexia Putellas in response to the goal and Aitana rewarded the manager's faith by scoring the equalizer in the 65th minute. The 20-year-old Spanish midfielder from the local town of Sant Pere de Ribes intercepted a pass on the right wing and curled in a shot past Atlético keeper Dolores Gallardo.

Liverpool-born Duggan checked in for Natasa Andonova in the 67th minute and helped Barcelona continue to flip the switch and take the game to their opposition. After controlling much of the game prior to the equalizer, Madrid were pushed back on their heels and found themselves much more spread out with the inclusion of the fresh legs. While not as pretty as the first goal, Kheira Hamraoui's ball from the right flank, finished by Duggan, sent the Mini Estadi into a frenzy and more importantly, brought Barcelona within one point of Atlético in the Liga Iberdrola table.

Barcelona's two draws to Atlético's one loss is the only difference between the top two teams, with the Femení conceding a league-best four goals in nine matches. The bright side is that the squad has seemingly navigated one of the tougher stretches of the season, as a break in their Champions League schedule allows them to focus solely on the league for a few months. The last week of March sees the home and away tie with LSK Kvinner FK, an odd fixture due to the respective league schedules of the two teams. LSK finished their domestic campaign at the start of November, and the Norwegian Cup Final on December 1st is their only match until they face off against Barcelona in March. Barcelona have a two week break at the end of December and about a three week break between February and March, but then contest league matches every week until the Champions League quarterfinal. 

Three straight second place finishes in the league and three straight quarterfinal or semifinal Champions League finishes are the results of a team on the verge of trophies with greater glory than their five Copa de la Reina titles in the last eight years. Four straight league trophies from 2011-12 through 2014-15, when the team was led by forward Sonia Bermúdez (now playing for 3rd-place Levante), could be seen as the peak of their powers, but there seems to something special about the roster that Fran Sánchez has assembled.

Obviously Duggan and 2017 Best FIFA Women's Player Lieke Martens get the headlines, but new addition Kheira Hamraoui, the French midfielder with experience at both Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon, has helped fortify a team that could have been in flux after the exodus of six players, including captain Laura Ràfols in net and defensive stalwart Ruth García (also now playing for Levante). Sandra Paños has risen to the occasion in net while the combination of María "Mapi" León and Andrea Pereira has been the best centre-back pair in the league this season.

When looking at the opportunities afforded to his players, Sánchez doesn't just rely on his star internationals, instead opting to rotate between six talented attackers. Brazilian Andressa Alves, Duggan and Andonova have all contributed two goals, Martens has added one and Alexia Putellas has led the line with five goals in eight appearances while Bárbara Latorre has been a force off the bench. The attack has been aided by the balanced scoring coming from the midfield as well, with five goals coming off the foot of Aitana, three from Mariona, two from Vicky Losada and one each from Patri Guijarro and Hamraoui.

The depth of the squad this season could be the biggest factor in pushing the team over the finish line in any of the competitions, and that's not taking into account the development of the youngsters that are being groomed as the stars of tomorrow. 17-year-old attacker Cláudia Pina is currently starring at the U-17 World Cup as Spain's captain, an honor she received after ending 2017 as the top goalscorer in any gender for U-17 players in Europe. Joining her at the World Cup is Spain's starting left-back Jana Fernández, a promising 16-year-old that couldn't be closer to the first team. The near future and the far future are bright for the Barcelona Femení and the win over Atlético Madrid could be the springboard for a very successful campaign.