Chelsea and Sam Kerr had few chances to equalise in the second half at Stamford Bridge
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Thankfully for Chelsea, this rematch against Barcelona in the Women’s Champions League was not the repeat of the 2021 final that at one stage it threatened to be. Chelsea set out to survive and will head to the Nou Camp still in the tie and only 1-0 down, but to win this semi-final they will need to offer much, much more. The Blues will take heart from how they restricted and disrupted Barcelona at times, but a defensive, passive approach from Emma Hayes’ side leaves them requiring another mircale in the second leg.
Chelsea will not fear such odds but overturning this will take something special. Chelsea could not live with Barcelona to begin with, particularly the outstanding Caroline Graham Hansen, who sealed Barcelona’s 4-0 win in Gothenburg two years ago and returned to terrorise Chelsea here. To raise the Barcelona bench from its feet and to stun this team of global stars takes something magical, and that’s what the winger produced with her wonderful opener after four minutes. It looked a long way back for Chelsea then, but they hung on.
A second goal for Barcelona to add to their dominance would have killed the tie, even at this early stage. Graham Hansen and Geyse both had shots saved during the early onslaught at Stamford Bridge, before Emma Hayes gathered her players after around 15 minutes, a break that perhaps conveniently for Chelsea came when Ann-Katrin Berger stayed down feeling her hamstrings. The Chelsea manager was stern, directing her side to get tighter to the gold shirts that until then were enjoying the freedom of Stamford Bridge.
It’s what they needed: Chelsea woke up and began to play with the attitude and spirit that you would normally associate with Hayes’ team. It suited Chelsea to be more aggressive, and they managed to be while taking more risks. A more direct approach to Sam Kerr brought Guro Reiten into the game and disrupted Barcelona, who almost lost their lead. Chelsea were denied an equaliser first by the offside flag after Kerr squared to Reiten, then by Lucy Bronze, who cleared Reiten’s angled finish off the line. The right back’s afternoon would end in yet another injury scare for England, with Bronze limping down the tunnel and unable to put weight on her right knee.
But by then, Chelsea’s resurgence in the contest had faded. Barcelona reasserted their authority in the second half, steering the tie away from the finely balanced chaos at the end of the opening period. Chelsea, though, didn’t concede another, even as Graham Hansen and Salma Paralluelo raced clear in the space behind the stand-in centre-back Maren Mjelde. Graham Hansen invariably came closest to adding the second after a wonderful backheel kept the ball in play in the touchline, before cutting inside and flashing a shot past the post.
At that point, Chelsea played as if restricting Barcelona to their one-goal lead was a victory. The closing stages of the second half brought a further retreat, Chelsea playing with a passiveness that almost cost them in the quarter-final against Lyon. Barcelona, by then, risked paying for their wastefulness, even if they remained so comfortable. Jonatan Giraldez had left his top scorer, Asisat Oshoala, on the bench, and Paralluelo and Geyse could not take their chances despite moments of clever interplay from Barcelona’s fluid front three.
Chelsea, without their first-choice defensive partnership of Millie Bright and Kedeisha Buchanan, had to endure some more worrying moments, with Berger producing a strong hand to deny Fridolina Rolfo’s near-post shot towards the end. But in doing so they struggled to convince that they are ready for a semi-final of this level.
Barcelona celebrate Graham Hansen’s opener
Hayes was left with just eight substitutes, including two goalkeepers, and with Fran Kirby still out and Pernille Harder and Lauren James starting on the bench, it was made clear that their squad has not evolved since the 2021 final as it should have done. Chelsea, of course, have won both Women’s Super League titles since then and a third in a row is in their hands. They managed to escape against Lyon but this defeat highlights what that late comeback perhaps covered up: teams like Barcelona are still a class above.
Chelsea did not have a clear chance to equalise after the break, but they at least ensured the game did not end as it had begun. Hayes opted to face Barcelona with a back five – the gamble was to sacrifice James and double up on Graham Hansen, with Jess Carter and Niamh Charles fielded as twin full-backs on the left. Yet Graham Hansen still found room as she ghosted inside and was allowed too much space from Melanie Leupolz outside of the box. Berger was the hero in front of the Shed End in the penalty shoot-out win over Lyon, but couldn’t stop a strike as fine as this. Now Chelsea require an even more miraculous comeback.
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