Lucy Bronze’s Lyon play Chelsea in a Champions League semi-final on Sunday but the full-back, who could win four trophies, is already preparing for her summer with England
Lucy Bronze sent a message to her Lyon teammates last weekend: “If you want to watch Chelsea, it’s on BBC One.” If they found a way to watch they will have seen a dominant Chelsea side fall on their own sword late on as Magda Eriksson’s injury-time own goal put Manchester City, Bronze’s former club, into the FA Cup final. With that loss last season’s double winners missed out on their last chance of a domestic trophy.
Chelsea now have one chance of making the Champions League next season, by winning it. But first they have a semi-final against the five-times winners, and holders, Lyon, with the first leg on Sunday. Bronze, believes a wounded Blues side is one to be wary of. “They’ve got one focus now and that is these two games,” says the England defender.
“They’re going to want to win their last games of the season but their focus primarily is recover, play well against Lyon, and do that twice. Whereas we’ve got our cup final coming up, we’ve still got to win our last two games to win the league, so we’ve still got other things in our heads as well – and we might potentially have a game in between the two Chelsea games whereas Chelsea are going to be all guns blazing. That drive and focus maybe will give them the edge they need.”
If anyone can relate to that relentless drive it is Bronze. The 27-year-old full-back, who would “run through a brick wall to win”, couples physical graft with an intelligence and reading of the game that eventually drew the attention of the dominant force in women’s club football, Lyon.
Having collected every domestic title at Manchester City, and two league titles with Liverpool before that, she is widely regarded as the best right-back in the world – “the best player in the world”, according to the England manager, Phil Neville. Bronze’s hunger for continuing success prompted her to make the switch. In her first season in France she won the league and picked up her first Champions League winners’ medal, scoring the goal that sent City out of their semi-final. She became the first England player to be named the BBC’s Women’s Footballer of the Year and was on the shortlists for the Ballon d’Or and the world player of the year awards. Now she is five games away from a potential treble and is a key part of Neville’s World Cup plans.
First up is Chelsea and, while they are well-known adversaries for Bronze, for Lyon they are a new proposition, the teams never having played each other.
“Lyon have played against other English clubs and Chelsea have played against other French clubs, but I think it’ll be interesting to see how the two teams match up because there’s not really been that direct contact. The first game especially with us being at home and in the big stadium again, with hopefully a big crowd, could work in our favour a bit.”
Chelsea scraped through to the semi-final, scoring at the death of their second leg at Paris Saint-Germain to progress on away goals, showing a resilience Bronze says is a bit of a trademark. “They always seemed to snatch a goal at the end of the game or just when they need it. They’ve got great attacking players, they’ve got a really resilient team and I think that’s something [the manager] Emma Hayes has kind of prided herself on the past couple of seasons, and that is how Chelsea have had so much success. But we’re quite good at that as well. We’re quite good at snatching late goals and we’re good at attacking teams when they are a little bit fatigued.”
While Hayes’s team were suffering against City, Lyon put five past their own title rival PSG. “Sometimes we beat teams six- or seven-nil but it’s still a challenge to us,” explains Bronze. “We’ve got players that are so hungry to win games and to play the best every single game so I don’t think there’s boredom in trying to beat them all the time because there is constantly that expectation you must do that. So we’ve constantly kind of got a competition with ourselves, we have to go and do that and we have to turn up every single week to prove we are that good.”
Does being part of the supposedly best-funded and -resourced women’s team in the world put pressure on them to maintain a standard that reflects that and shows that investment is worth making elsewhere?
“I think to a certain extent there is a pressure,” replies Bronze. “Although I don’t think I’ve felt the pressure at Lyon more than I’ve felt at any other club I’ve played at. As much as there is a lot of funding and they support the team so much, they do it because they genuinely want to. They want us to be successful not because it reflects so well on the club, they just desperately love football and love the club.
“You don’t feel pressure off the club because it’s not like: ‘Oh if you lose we’ll take all the money away.’ It’s a constant thing where they want to keep building on [success] and it shows. We’ve won 12 consecutive league titles in France because of that.”
Having won the Champions League for the first time last season, Bronze is now much more laid-back. “Last year at Lyon the other girls were so relaxed when we were going to play Barça, or City or in the Champions League final, because they had been there and done it. They were super relaxed, it was just like another game for them.
“Obviously the tie with City was a little bit different for me for other reasons, but even before the Champions League final I was like: ‘This is my first Champions League final and it could be my last.’ Whereas the rest of the girls are like: ‘OK, this is my fifth final’ or whatever. This year I feel more relaxed going into every game, there’s not really that overwhelming feeling you get when you face something you’ve not been through already.”
Lyon’s demolition of PSG took place in front of a league-record 25,907 fans, following record-breaking attendances for women’s games in Spain, where 60,739 watched Atlético Madrid lose 2-0 to Barcelona, and Italy, where 39,000 saw Juventus defeat Fiorentina. Bronze says it is not new and is not rocket science. “When we played Wolfsburg, when we’ve played Man City in the past two years, when we played in Barcelona last year, we would get in between 15,000 and 25,000. We’ve kind of always had that.
“I think it’s a thing in France, and I think you see it a little bit in Spain with Atlético, the countries and the cities just absolutely love their football. It’s not because they’re just marketing geniuses, it’s because they’ve made it simple. They’ve put on good teams, Lyon have good football to watch, Atlético have great football to watch, and the cities just indulge themselves in all types of football, whether it’s a girl or a boy [playing football] I don’t think they see the difference as much.”
In her second season in France Bronze is feeling settled. “When I look back now, the first couple of months it is hard to settle in,” she says. “Now I can have a conversation with a coach in French, I can talk to all the girls on the pitch. I know what I’m doing in my position, there’s some of the girls now that I think I can play with my eyes closed.”
Those players are some of the best in the world. Many will feature for France, and Bronze is tipping the host nation for the World Cup. “For me they are the favourites. They’ve shown in their friendlies they’re capable of beating any team.
“They’ve tried it all, they’ve been around all the stadiums for the World Cup, so they’ve had that mental preparation and then they’ve got some of the best players in the world. And not just one or two –they’ve got four, five, six players at that top level.”
England have ambitions of upsetting the party across the Channel and Bronze’s knowledge is an advantage. “I know them inside out. I know what their strengths and weaknesses are which is ultimately going to help us. In a World Cup the girls at Lyon are probably the ones that are going to change the games and I know them inside out.
“I know that when we come and play in the World Cup I’m going to feel at home. I speak the language, I know the people; if we get to the semi-finals and final it’s playing on my home field.”