FROM STAMFORD BRIDGE – A goal just four minutes into the first leg of the Champions League semi final tie means Chelsea are fighting to keep their road to Eindhoven hopes alive.
A ruthless Barcelona crumbled the Blues’ depleted backline mere moments into Saturday’s clash as Caroline Graham Hansen’s shot from distance curled its way past Ann-Katrin Berger to find the back of the net.
This fixture was a repeat of the 2021 Champions League final in Gothenburg where a dominant Barcelona soared to a comprehensive 4-0 win, their victory being sealed a little over 20 minutes into the game.
With wounds still rife from that loss, Chelsea were eager to prove a point but, in giving too much space for the Barcelona forwards to run, gave the opener away to the visitors.
Emma Hayes’s side were without key centre backs Millie Bright and Kadeisha Buchanan, the favoured backline pairing all season. With Maren Mjelde stepping in to partner skipper Magdalena Eriksson and Jess Carter, Chelsea switched to a 3-5-2, dropping star winger Lauren James to bench. The omission seemed to work against Chelsea as they struggled to maintain possession and match the control that Barcelona enjoy so effectively.
Chelsea began to grow into the game, but their chances of an equaliser were stumped before they could level the score. Guro Reiten found the back of the net but her stellar strike was offside, denying the Norwegian the equaliser.
Chelsea’s ability to dominate the flanks was becoming their weapon, however. The link-up between Reiten and prolific Australian goalscorer Sam Kerr is a tried and tested partnership that has lead Chelsea in their hunt for both the Champions League title and the WSL trophy and once again it caused issues, using the counter to full advantage.
Chelsea struggled to be inventive when creating chances, playing far too direct and predictably, while the full backs didn’t get high enough up the pitch to provide more support.
Home advantage worked little in the Blues’ favour despite drawing a record crowd of 27,697 fans. Having only played three games at Stamford Bridge this season, they have struggled to make the 40,000-seater stadium feel like home.
Chelsea would have looked more comfortable playing at the fortress that Kingsmeadow has become for them.
The fresh legs of Lauren James, coming on as a half-time sub, seemed to inject more energy into the home side. Doing well to recover after conceding early, Chelsea’s plan of playing on the break and pressing was going well. The introduction of James made that plan all the more formidable as her pace and control provided another avenue of play.
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Another injury concern popped up for the Lionesses as Lucy Bronze hobbled off with her right knee in some degree of discomfort, and the replacement of the right back allowed pressure to build with James taking full advantage. But her efforts were to no avail.
Frustrations piled on for Chelsea as Barcelona’s dominance directed play to their advantage. But the fans roared whenever Chelsea reclaimed possession, acting as the twelfth player, edging them on to level in the last 15 minutes.
To add some light to a tricky afternoon for Chelsea, with 10 minutes left to go, a triple change saw Pernille Harder step back onto the grass for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury in November.
Chelsea will be disappointed as there seemed to be more they could get out of the game, but it has to be noted that this was their biggest test of the season so far, and they passed it.
A defensive masterclass from Maren Mjelde combined with a well thought out plan to attack on the counter shows improvement from a side who crumbled against the Liga F frontrunners two years ago.
“You have to be in the tie. We’re in the tie,” Hayes ruled in her post-match comments.
“Now we have to prepare again for another game. Now players have experienced that and it’s important we learn and stay in the tie. That was my big message – stay in the tie.”
But it is not game over yet for the London side. Going into the second leg 1-0 down would not be what Chelsea wanted as they head to Camp Nou next week, but given Barcelona’s dominance, this result will give them faith that they still have a chance of reaching the final in Eindhoven.