Pressure proves Wolfsburg aren't finished product
As the clock ticked past the 20-minute mark, VfL Wolfsburg took advantage of an injury break to gather for an unusual mid-match huddle in Paris St Germain's half.
The Shewolves had looked all at sea until that point during their UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinal clash at the Parc des Princes, as the home crowd filled with Ultras and excitable schoolchildren created a cacophony of noise.
"We were a bit nervous," Dominique Janssen admitted to DW after the game. "We felt we were well prepared for the noise [of the home fans] and knew what was going to happen, but we didn’t play our best game."
For all the pre-match talk of the excitement at playing in the big matches, Tommy Stroot's side looked overwhelmed by the pressure in Paris and, for much of the game, their Champions League campaign looked like it might unravel.
However, after PSG had a penalty overturned by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), Wolfsburg profited from a VAR intervention of their own as Elise de Almeida received a second yellow card for handball in the box allowing Janssen to convert from the spot.
"I don’t think we showed the way that we can play, so we have to improve that for next big games," Janssen told DW. "It was good for us to come together as team mid-game. Tactically we were not playing in the best way possible.
"It was important to know what was going on, what the players are feeling in the front, the midfield and at the back and to make sure there was then one clear vision."
Big game experience still lacking
The German champions have talked a lot about taking the next step, having won their domestic league title in seven of the past nine seasons.
The last time Wolfsburg lifted the Champions League was in 2014 and while investment in the team and facilities has led to domination at home, Wolfsburg have struggled to impose themselves in Europe.
"We need sponsors [in the Frauen Bundesliga] in order to develop structures at other clubs," German captain and Wolfsburg forward Alexandra Popp told DW in September. "To invest money and place funds so that the quality of the league improves as well."
The importance of facing competitive opposition within the Bundesliga, where Wolfsburg lead the league by two points, was evident against PSG and underlined the importance of normalizing the big-game, matchday experience.
The Volkswagen Arena has twice opened its doors to Wolfsburg's women this season as they picked up victories against Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt. But, playing in intimidating away conditions remains an opportunity afforded far too rarely to teams of Wolfsburg's calibre.
Their experience of playing in front of 91,648 fans at Camp Nou in last year's semi-final first-leg against Barcelona also proved an overwhelming experience — and ended in a 5-1 defeat.
"Last season we experienced the same noise from the crowd against Barcelona," Janssen recalled. "You try to take that experience away with you and know it gets easier the more often it happens."
Janssen keeps her cool
Ahead of the match, the PSG Ultras unfurled a banner in honor of former goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek, who spent six years in Paris before moving to the German champions in 2020.
"Kasia, your mark will be permanent," their tribute read. It was the only moment of kindness from the vocal and daunting group over the course of the next 90 minutes.
Though they quite clearly impacted Wolfsburg throughout the match, 28-year-old Janssen held her nerve when she stepped up to spot in front of the barking Ultras.
"As soon as the referee went over to the VAR screen, I thought this can be the moment for us," she said. "I felt really well prepared, focused and in my zone. I heard it was really loud, but I thought, 'OK, I know I can score this goal. It looked really ice cold and I was confident, but I was just happy to score."
It was a rare moment of calm for the away side amongst the chaos, but the serenity was not emulated during open play, even in the half-hour PSG played with 10 players.
Tougher tests coming thick and fast
Wolfsburg's season-defining week continues as the team head to title-chasing Bayern Munich on the weekend, before the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal.
The title challengers are unbeaten in their last 13 matches across all competitions and sit just two points behind The Shewolves, adding further pressure to the much-anticipated fixture.
"Against Bayern Munich we have to play better than we did today," Janssen admitted. "We need to be able to create more chances, to score more goals. We are always looking forward to the big games and playing so many games in a short period of time is exciting. We're a team that needs a little bit of pressure to perform at our best, that’s how we can describe ourselves. "
If Wolfsburg are to remain at the top of the Bundesliga table and reach the Champions League semifinals, they are going to have to embrace the moments when there's a lot of pressure.
Edited by: James Thorogood