When Toni Duggan swapped Manchester City for Barcelona the news transcended women’s football. As the first English player to join the Catalan club since Gary Lineker left Everton in 1986, it was a big story.
Having become a little surplus to requirements at City, where she had scored 31 times in 74 appearances, helping the club to their first WSL title in 2016 and the FA Cup in 2017, a move made sense. Her contract was running down and Barcelona swooped for the free transfer of the No 9.
Barça were not considered a superpower in the women’s game, but their status as a football club held weight and their renewed focus and investment in their women’s team made it an attractive proposition. Six days after Duggan’s signing the Dutch Euro 2017 golden ball winner, Lieke Martens, came in.
Now they are one game away from establishing themselves as a serious European force. But the task ahead is huge. Barcelona face the holders and five-times winners, Lyon, in Budapest in their maiden Women’s Champions League final on Saturday.
The French champions have two of Duggan’s international teammates and former Manchester City colleagues, Lucy Bronze and Izzy Christiansen, in a galáctico squad that also includes the first Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg, the France captain, Wendie Renard, the Germany captain, Dzsenifer Marozsán, and Wales’s Jess Fishlock (on loan from Seattle Reign).
Should they win, they will pick up a staggering fifth consecutive Champions League title.
Barça have benefited from a much kinder route to the final. A surprising struggle against the Kazakh side BIIK-Kazygurt, who they beat 4-3 on aggregate, was followed by a two-leg thumping of Glasgow City (8-0) and wins against LSK Kvinner (4-0) and Bayern Munich (2-0).
Lyon cruised past the Norwegian side Avaldsnes 7-0 and defeated Ajax by a humiliating 13-0 before being handed a quarter-final against their opponents in last year’s final, Wolfsburg. They won 6-3 over two legs and then met a stubborn Chelsea, who nabbed a warning away goal in losing 2-1 in the first leg before holding Lyon to a 1-1 draw. Lyon have been tested against some of the best and progressed while decidedly not at their best.
When Duggan joined Barcelona Saturday’s type of occasion, against this class of opposition, was the aim. “My new coach, Fran Sánchez, has told me their ambition is to win the Women’s Champions League and the club have made that very clear with their signings over the years,” she told the BBC. “I’ve had a lot of success in England and I’ve really enjoyed my time with Manchester City, but I wanted to challenge myself even further by playing abroad.”
Since her arrival Barcelona have failed to unseat Atlético Madrid – who knocked Manchester City out of this season’s Champions League in the round of 32 – and have finished as runners-up in both seasons. Duggan, though, has played well. In her first season only Andressa Alves, with 12 goals, scored more for the team. Duggan, Martens and Alexia Putellas scored 11 apiece.
In her two seasons she has scored 29 goals and is remarkably consistent – at City she scored in 42% of games played, at Barça 40%. On 17 March, she prodded in Barcelona’s second goal as the ball rebounded off a post against Atlético in front of a record league crowd of 60,739 in the Wanda Metropolitano.
Having been a key part of Mark Sampson’s bronze-winning team at the 2015 World Cup, Duggan has also been a staple of Phil Neville’s Lionesses. The 27-year-old, who has 71 caps, is the only player to have featured in every one of the manager’s 17 games.
For Neville, who has a wealth of attacking talent to choose from, the versatile forward plays wide in a front three or on the wing, supporting Fran Kirby, Ellen White and Jodie Taylor, who are used more centrally.
Duggan has always maintained that playing at Barcelona and competing in Europe has made her a better England player. With Christiansen and Bronze at Lyon, and the goalkeeper Mary Earps at Wolfsburg, English players are increasingly taking similar risks. “This is the next level now,” Duggan said at the recent SheBelieves Cup. “We want to take ourselves out of our comfort zones; when you’re in one for so long you only play to a certain level.”