Lieke Martens is done with finishing in second place.
In 2019 she was second best on the two biggest stages in football: in the Champions League with her Barcelona team, and then with Holland in the World Cup. Tonight’s final against Chelsea marks her second opportunity at European glory with Barcelona, and being runner up again just won’t do.
“It’s definitely made me hungrier,” Martens says of her losses. In both 2019 finals, Martens and her team-mates were up against the reigning champions and two of the most dominant sides in women’s football history: the US women’s national team and Olympique Lyonnais.
In the latter, Barcelona were drubbed by seven-times winners Lyon, going 4-0 down within the first 30 minutes. “After that the game was already decided,” she says. “We were a bit scared to play and Lyon just ran over us – they didn’t have mercy for us.”
At the time, Barcelona were a team used to coming in second. The 2019 season was the fourth in a row in which Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao beat them to the top spot in Spain’s first division. Martens says they have evolved since, going from a team that respected their opponents too much, to believing in their own ability.
“When I’d just signed in 2017, we’d always point and look around at other teams, and say, ‘They’re good, those players are amazing.’ But now I feel like we’re also one of those – we know that we are amazing. We really feel like this can be our year.”
Losing that Champions League final felt like a turning point.
“I think we’re in a totally different moment now. From there on, we started like a new progress. We needed to increase the practice, and you see it pays off at the end. We know Chelsea have good players, but the full focus is on how we want to play and how we’re going to be dominant in Gothenburg.”
Barcelona have been exactly that all season. They have lost only one of their 38 competitive matches since August, and on their way to a domestic title scored 128 goals, conceding only five times. Martens has been a huge part of that attack, which obliterated Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals, and she has scored five goals in her five starts in the competition this season.
There is a refreshing feel to tonight’s finale in Gothenburg, after Lyon, who won the Champions League each of the last five seasons, were ejected in a shock quarter-final loss to Paris Saint-Germain. It means the trophy will reside outside of Germany or France for the first time in 14 years, and whoever wins will make history with their club’s first victory.
In the case of Barcelona, Martens says it would be well-deserved reward for the club’s continued commitment to women’s football. And what of what she deserves? Martens took a punt on Barcelona when she had her pick of any club after being named Fifa player of the year in 2017.
“I signed because I wanted to win the Champions League,” she says. “I knew we wouldn’t win in the first two years but after two years already we’re in the final and now again. I like to play big games, it’s why I make all the efforts, why I’m abroad from my family, my boyfriend, my friends — because I’m ambitious and I want to be the best of Europe.”
She did that in the 2017 European Championships with Holland, and she admits to doing some Chelsea scouting via her London-based national team-mates Vivianne Miedema and Danielle van de Donk at Arsenal.
“During the season I already talked with with them because I’m also interested in the English league,” she says. “I just want to get to know more about all the teams. I should text them now like to see if they have some more tips for me.
“I know that against Chelsea we won’t get 10 chances, but the chances we get we have to make them, and they have some players who can decide the game, create something out of nowhere. We have to very careful.”
Having been the underdog in those 2019 finals, would she finally say Barcelona are the favourites against debutants Chelsea?
“Let’s just say that I have a totally different feeling [this time] and I feel we’re ready to win the Champions League. With all the respect for Chelsea, because they have a really good team, but I’m really confident in my team.”