After Barcelona struck a humiliating blow to their confidence in the UWCL final, Chelsea must show their mettle and regroup for the FA Cup final – and start preparing for European finals to come, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
What happens when the moment you have spent close to a decade working towards is snatched away? And not just taken from under your nose, but publicly and embarrassingly shown to be beyond your reach?
It is the question Emma Hayes will have had to face up to this week as she assesses the fallout from Chelsea’s Champions League final loss to Barcelona.
Despite domestic glory (she is the most successful manager of the WSL era), Hayes has made no secret that the Champions League is her white whale. Reaching the final was an incredible, but expected, achievement. Now she must help her side regroup as they prepare to face Everton in the delayed FA Cup final on Thursday.
Barcelona, their conquerors, are all too familiar with Chelsea’s dilemma. In 2019, they were easily dismantled by a Lyon side spearheaded by Ada Hegerberg. At the time, Lyon seemed unstoppable, winning the fourth of their five consecutive Champions League titles. Yet there has been a shift in European football since. Lyon were knocked out of the competition this year for the first time since 2015, whilst Hegeberg has not played football in over a year.
Chelsea’s challenge then will be to stop Barcelona from taking on the mantle of Lyon’s monopoly. They will not be the only ones – Bayern Munich, Paris St Germain, and perhaps even Manchester City will feel like they are also ready to ascend into the European elite.
When it comes to how Chelsea achieve that, the performance in the final is as good a place as any to start. Their fullbacks have looked vulnerable throughout the season, exacerbated by Maren Mjelde’s injury, whilst their midfield has a tendency to go missing in important games.
In Jess Carter and Niamh Charles, Hayes has two young players who have a lot of learning still to do. She will have to assess whether they have the ability to make it at the highest level, or whether reinforcements are required. Both played undeniably important roles in Chelsea reaching the final but were woefully out of their depth against Lieke Martens and Caroline Graham Hansen.
The midfield is more of a tactical issue. The decision to give Pernille Harder a free roaming role behind Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr means absolute precision is required from Chelsea’s midfield trio. It is hard to imagine Hayes will give up the opportunity to play all three of her stars. But if she is to persist with it, she needs to find a midfield combination who can better support the defence without leaving the attack isolated.
Looming over Chelsea’s whole performance was the relative lack of experience at the highest level. Whilst a very talented group, only Pernille Harder and Melanie Leupolz had played in an international final, and it was also only Harder who had played in a Champions League final before.
Contrast that with Barcelona’s starting XI where seven players had participated in the 2019 final, whilst Graham Hansen had also previously played in two different finals. Chelsea should take note of how much of that Barcelona side Lluis Cortes kept together; you do not have to radically overhaul your team to change your fortunes in the Champions League.
Chelsea have faced humiliations before. Back in 2018, they lost 5-0 at home to Arsenal. Five players who played in the UWCL final started that game: Millie Bright, Magda Eriksson, Jess Carter, Ji So-Yun, and Fran Kirby. That was the last time Chelsea lost to a ‘top four’ rival in the WSL – and they have only lost twice in the competition since then.
There is no doubt that Hayes’ sides feed off the energy when they feel like their backs are against the wall. “Last season we weren’t the champions in some people’s eyes,” she said after Chelsea retained the WSL. “But this season the players really wanted to demonstrate that we’re the champions.”
That bodes ominously for Everton who are where Chelsea will look to reassert their pre-existing English dominance. Willie Kirk’s side scuppered Chelsea’s attempt to achieve a domestic treble last season when they knocked them out in the quarter-finals. Repeating the feat will take some doing as Chelsea beat them by an aggregate score of 7-0 in the league.
A Chelsea win would take them even closer to a domestic treble. It might not quite be the quadruple they dreamed of, but it would still be historic for the club. It would also be the first step in a road they will surely walk again – back to the Champions League final.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph