Eni Aluko: Fran Kirby can be the difference for Chelsea as they take on Barcelona in UWCL Final

As Barcelona and Chelsea gear up for a historic Champions League Final on Sunday, Jessy Parker Humphreys explores who could have the edge, with help from England and Chelsea legend Eni Aluko.

On Sunday night, Chelsea will walk out for the biggest game in the club’s history. Emma Hayes has made no secret of her desire to win the Champions League, so much so that winning a record-breaking fourth Women’s Super League title last weekend felt like a footnote in this team’s season.

Reaching the final is a step further than Chelsea have ever gone before, but winning would require beating a Barcelona side who have probably looked the most threatening out of all the sides in the competition.

Emma Hayes faces a couple of key selection choices going into this fixture. Finding the correct fullback combination since Maren Mjelde injured her knee in the Continental Cup final has been a struggle. Hayes’ job has not been made easier by the fact that Jonna Andersson has been repeatedly targeted by sides for her tendency to be caught out of position and her lack of capability at defending 1v1s.

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As it is, Hayes looks set to pick Jess Carter and Niamh Charles to start but it is not clear as to which way round they would set up. The threat of Caroline Graham Hansen might be enough to persuade Hayes to play the more defensive Carter on the left which would also leave Charles free to link up with Fran Kirby going forward on the right.

In midfield, the correct decision is even less clear. With Chelsea likely to play a diamond formation, Pernille Harder and Melanie Leupolz will be guaranteed starters, whilst Sophie Ingle will almost certainly play at the base. That fourth spot could arguably go to either Ji So-Yun or Erin Cuthbert. Whilst Ji brings a lot of creativity to midfield, she is not always the most robust player defensively. Cuthbert, however, is great at breaking up play and offers a lot of speed on the counterattack which, given the way Barcelona like to play, will probably be a key component of Chelsea’s game plan.

This kind of versatility is something that former Chelsea player and BT Sport pundit Eni Aluko thinks could give Chelsea the edge in the final.

“I think going into this game Chelsea will have a bit more unpredictability to them than Barcelona. I think Barcelona don’t change the way they play, they’re a very possession-style team in a traditional 4-3-3.”

“Chelsea are much more willing to find a way to win in different ways, whether it’s round on the wings, or through the heart of the team. Whereas Barcelona are going to be very consistent in the way they approach the game. So I think to that extent Chelsea have an edge, because it’s going to be more difficult to predict what they are going to do.”

Central to all of Chelsea’s success this season, and likely to be a key figure in the final, is Fran Kirby. Kirby has had the most prolific season of her career with 27 goal contributions in the WSL, 13 more than her previous best back in 2017/18. She joined Chelsea back in 2015 when Aluko was still at the club.

“It was a watershed moment,” Aluko says, on Kirby’s signing.

“Fran’s name was already quite big at Reading and I remember there was a goal against Arsenal where she did this amazing skill and it was like ‘Who is this girl?!’”

“I remember going to England camp and I was like ‘Is there any chance you are going to sign for Chelsea?’ and she was like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,” laughs Aluko.

“She’s just continued on that trajectory with an amazing story, with lots of adversity, which makes it so inspiring for me because I think without that adversity, she wouldn’t be where she is today. She wouldn’t have that drive.”

“I think she is the difference in this Chelsea team. Whether it’s assisting Sam Kerr, whether it’s scoring herself. Whether it’s understanding what it takes to win and being in that dressing room after so many trophies, I think Fran Kirby is a big difference.”

Kirby is not the only player in this current Chelsea squad who has been present for almost all of their trophy wins (almost – she was actually cup-tied for their first FA Cup in 2015). Millie Bright, Ji So-Yun, Drew Spence and Hannah Blundell have also been part of the six year journey between winning their first cup and reaching the Champions League final.

“It’s so important [having those players] because those players become the heart of the team,” Aluko explains. “And then when new players come in, they’re able to understand what the journey is. That’s so important.”

“And I think it’s credit to the environment Emma Hayes has created where people feel at home. It’s a very very difficult place to leave. I know!”

“By the time I left I kind of accepted that I needed to leave. But I wanted to stay. I wanted to retire at Chelsea.”

“But it is really important for the makeup of the team, and that’s where the journey is really important. Because without that journey, it’s kind of like another old game. But this is ten years in the making. That’s why people like me are so proud because I know what it has taken to get there.”

In many ways, Barcelona and Chelsea have gone on very similar trajectories to reach this Champions League final, although it will be Barcelona’s second final following their 4-1 loss to Lyon back in 2019. Both sides have had domestic dominance in a season where their eyes have been very firmly on this one prize. Chelsea would become the first English club to win the competition in 14 years, whilst Barcelona would be the first ever Spanish side. Whatever happens on Sunday, this will not be the last we see of either of these sides at the very top of continental football.

BT Sport has live coverage of the UEFA Women’s Champions League final between Chelsea Women and Barcelona Women live from 7.15pm on Sunday 16th May on BT Sport 2.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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