Chelsea stood up to the Nou Camp – but Champions League remains out of reach
Emma Hayes gathers her players after Chelsea’s defeat to Barcelona
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The Nou Camp was rocking by the end, relieved they could finally get the party started. Barcelona are through to their third Women’s Champions League final in a row, their fourth in five seasons, but Chelsea had made them hang on until the final moment. Emma Hayes wanted her side to remain in the tie, and Chelsea managed to do so until the last whistle. They completed one half of their sizable task and stopped Barcelona from winning at home. Accomplishing the other, knocking Barcelona out with a win in the Nou Camp, was beyond them.
But Chelsea can hold their heads high. As the majority of the 72,262 clapped in unison at full time, and the Barcelona players saluted the sea of red, blue and yellow, Hayes gathered her players in the centre of the vast expanse. They had given everything; they had suffered, survived, and then Hayes finally gambled as Lauren James and Pernille Harder were brought on, in what was Chelsea’s final assault. Barcelona were nervous and Chelsea felt it. Just one chance would have done it, but nothing fell.
Perhaps Chelsea could have acted sooner but they first needed to earn the right to twist. The scale of the challenge presented to Chelsea was made clear by the Nou Camp itself – in its enormity, the three steeping tiers, the colour and fanfare outside the ground and in. Barcelona had won all five games here in the Champions League, scoring 24 goals. They were on a run of 18 home wins in a row in Europe. Chelsea managed to limit Barcelona to a one-goal lead after the first leg at Stamford Bridge, and it still left them requiring a miracle to advance.
Guro Reiten’s equaliser on the night, which came moments after Caroline Graham Hansen had doubled Barcelona’s lead in the tie, restored hope and the platform Chelsea had worked so hard to build. Chelsea needed to be brave, as well as perfect. Hayes offered a tweak, with Maren Mjelde stepping out of defence when Chelsea looked to build possession, while they pressed higher than they did at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were more settled and kept the ball better than they managed in the first leg, or at any stage of their quarter-final against holders Lyon.
But Barcelona gave Chelsea constant reminders of the precariousness of their position, Graham Hansen and the outstanding Aitana Bonmati the dangers who could have taken the tie away at any moment. Chelsea’s mission was to stay in the game, but then the time came where they needed to start opening up. Chelsea had six players attacking the Barcelona box in the move before the opening goal. Sam Kerr was offside and from the free kick Barcelona split Chelsea open, Mariona Caldentey’s touch took Melanie Leupolz and Mjelde out of the game, Bonmati surged clear and slipped in Graham Hansen, who finished off the counter-attack.
Those were the risks, but Chelsea’s response was immediate. Erin Cuthbert challenged Caldentey and there was suddenly space to hit Kerr, who had been starved for so long. Leupolz found the ball and although Sandro Panos denied what was Chelsea’s first shot of the match, Reiten tucked away the rebound. It was another big-game goal from the Norway international and the surprise from Hayes was that she was one of those taken off when James and Harder were brought on.
Barcelona will face either Wolfsburg or Arsenal in the final
Reiten had also had the best of Chelsea’s fleeting moments in the first leg, as Kerr occupied Mapi Leon and Irene Paredes at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea lacked some of the same interplay at the Nou Camp. Although they were still in the tie at half time they had failed to threaten, apart from a couple of crosses that caused some early confusion in the Barcelona box.
You could understand what Hayes wanted to do, and even then Barcelona could have been out of sight by the break. Graham Hansen, who scored a stunning winner inside four minutes last week, was denied another early goal after she was judged to have handled Fridolina Rolfo’s cross. Bonmati’s stepover set up a chance for Caldentey, who missed the target.
Chelsea again tried to double up on Graham Hansen, but she had the beating of anyone and everyone, setting up an opportunity for Asisat Oshoala, who sliced over. Ann-Katrin Berger had to be sharp to keep out a cross from Bonmati that looked to be squeezing inside the near post. In the final 10 minutes, Berger saved again from Salma Paralluelo.
Chelsea had given everything to get through, and then they made Barcelona hang on. Two years ago in Gothenburg in 2021, they had been blown apart after half an hour, conceding four goals. They weren’t beaten by Barcelona tonight, far from it, but if that final step remains out of reach – a breakthrough in the Champions League does too.
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