Now in its third season since the UEFA Women's Champions League was reformatted to include a group stage, the calls for an expanded group stage -- the competition only has four groups of four in 2023-24, compared to eight groups of four in the men's tournament -- have never been louder following the elimination of Arsenal, Juventus and Levante during the first round of qualifying. While shocking and a blow to the Champions League's star power, it does come with the caveat that Arsenal were knocked out by a fellow third-place finisher in their respective league (Paris FC), while Juventus, who finished runners-up in Serie A, were dispatched by third-place Frauen-Bundesliga finisher, Eintracht Frankfurt.
At present, 42 teams are knocked out of the Champions League during the first round of qualification, with just 11 advancing from the "champions path" -- the mini-tournaments that contain the champions from the 41 countries with the lowest co-efficient. Those who make it through that side of the draw go into a second round of qualifying with the next three highest ranked nations -- this season, the champions from Czechia, Sweden and Italy -- with the seven winners advancing to the group stage.
The "league path," the one now viewed as more perilous, has driven conversation for more change to benefit the higher ranked nations and more familiar team names. Teams who finished as runners-up in the leagues ranked 7-16 by UEFA, as well as the six third-place finishers from the top six nations (again, all done by co-efficient), are drawn into their own groups, so a third-place team isn't able to knock out a champion or vice versa.
Yet there is an extra layer of contention. With the first round of qualifying being so close to the end of the World Cup -- last year, it came not long after the Euros final -- many feel Arsenal got the short end of the stick because so many of their players played up to seven games over the summer in that competition, only returning to their club just before the qualifiers. However, had Manchester United finished third, the Red Devils wouldn't have been as hampered given that few of their players made it too deep at the World Cup; neither would have champions, Chelsea, which makes that a hard eventuality to budget for.
With all this noise in the background and reports of further talks at UEFA to expand the group stage or change the current co-efficient system to leave more room for the handful of professional clubs in Europe, the draw for the second round of qualifying took place on Friday in Nyon. And unlike the draw for the first round of qualifying, the ties are far more straightforward and less likely to throw up any major surprises.
On the champions path, Icelandic champions Valur going against St. Polten, a consistent tournament presence from Austria, should draw some interest. Equally, Glasgow City's fixtures again Brann could prove just as interesting. With more well-known names drawn into the league path, there is a little more spice, with Häcken vs. Twente the tie of the round. Meanwhile, Paris FC get little reward for eliminating Arsenal: next up, they face German heavyweights (and runners-up from last season's final), Wolfsburg. There was some joy for Eintracht who, having dispatched with Juventus in the previous round, have a more favourable draw against Sparta Praha.
Making their European debut, Manchester United have avoided the biggest dangers lurking in the draw and will face Paris Saint-Germain, who have seen another mass exodus over the summer -- goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, defenders Estelle Cascarino, Ashley Lawrence and Amanda Ilestedt, forward Kadidiatou Diani -- that's weakened the squad from top to bottom. That said, PSG are the more experienced team in Europe, and they'll need to lean on that if they want to get through to the group stage. With the timeline for star striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto's return still unknown following an ACL injury in the summer of 2022, the odds are less favourable for the Parisiennes.
Apollon Ladies FC (CYP) vs SL Benfica (POR)
FC Zürich (SUI) vs AFC Ajax (NED)
AS Roma (ITA) vs FC Vorskla (UKR)
Valur (ISL) vs SKN St. Pölten Frauen (AUT)
SK Slavia Praha (CZE) vs AS FC Universitatea Olimpia Cluj (ROU)
Glasgow City FC (SCO) vs SK Brann (NOR)
ŽFK Spartak Subotica (SRB) vs FC Rosengård (SWE)
BK Häcken FF (SWE) vs FC Twente (NED)
Real Madrid CF (ESP) vs Vålerenga Fotball (NOR)
Eintracht Frankfurt (GER) vs AC Sparta Praha (CZE)
Paris FC (FRA) vs VfL Wolfsburg (GER)
Manchester United Women (ENG) vs Paris Saint-Germain (FRA)
First legs to be played Oct. 10-11, return fixtures to be played Oct. 18-19.