Brilliant Barça earn first-leg win over Chelsea

With the buzz of over 25,000 fans in the stands at Stamford Bridge ahead of a crunch tie against Barcelona in a Champions League fixture, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d be seeing Thiago Silva and co taking the field. However, Saturday’s attendance figure goes to show how far the support for the women’s game has come in recent years, thanks largely to the impressive work by Emma Hayes and her Chelsea side.

The heroics of Maren Mjelde and Ann-Katrin Berger in the quarter-final fixture against Lyon allowed the Blues to progress to this semi-final encounter against a Barcelona side that have reached the highest of highs in recent years – notably the 2021 Final in Gothenburg, where the Blaugrana ran out 4-0 victors over the Blues.

CHE: Berger; Perisset, Mjelde, Eriksson, Carter; Cuthbert, Leupolz, Reiten; Charles, Cankovic, Kerr

BAR: Panos; Bronze, Paredes, Leon, Rolfo; Bonmati, Walsh, Guijarro; Graham Hansen, Geyse, Parralluelo

Both managers set their sides up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Emma Hayes’s XI being affected by injury once again. Millie Bright missed out due to a knee injury, along with Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan after picking up an injury while on international duty. Barcelona continue to be without Alexia Putellas, but still named an incredibly strong starting eleven featuring England stars Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh.

The fans were waving their flags with vigour as the players entered the field of play prior to kick-off, with the home support in a buoyant mood – even though the Chelsea team would be considered underdogs in this tie against a rampant Barcelona side that comfortably dispatched Roma in the previous round.

As Chelsea took kick off, they immediately looked to play in Sam Kerr with a long ball over the top, and it seemed as though this would serve as an ongoing theme in the opening minutes. A particularly notable chance was created by a deep ball played from Jess Carter at left back, but the play was immediately halted due to the Australian forward committing a foul.

When playing at home in a two-legged tie, it’s vital to be resolute in defence and not let the away side get a foothold in the game – which unfortunately the Blues were unable to do. As early as the fourth minute, Barcelona found themselves ahead through their Norwegian talisman Caroline Graham Hansen. In the visitors’ stunning gold strip, the winger was able to pick up the ball on the right flank, cutting inside and driving towards the Chelsea penalty area. With minimal pressure applied, the silky striker was able to pick her spot and curl a beautiful left-footed strike passed a fully-stretched Berger in the Chelsea net, giving Barcelona an early 1-0 lead.

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This was certainly not the start that Chelsea or Emma Hayes would have wanted for the London club, particularly given Barcelona’s ability to dominate possession in games – making the remaining 85 minutes of the game for Chelsea even harder.

There was almost an immediate response from the home-side, who attempted to play the ball quickly in behind but Barcelona were able to deal with it and block any potential shots on target. As the half progressed, Chelsea receded backwards their own goal – looking shell-shocked from finding themselves trailing so early.

A brief break in play following an injury to the Chelsea ‘keeper allowed Emma Hayes to have a quick word with her team, looking animated in her instructions on the side-line. The instructions seemed to have an effect, with more energy clearly displayed throughout the remainder of the half – but Barca still looked a second ahead in most of their decision making.

The Blues had a good opportunity to bring themselves level soon after, as Kerr flicked a ball over the top towards Reiten, who then returned the pass. The Australian’s pop-shot cannoned off Paredes – and looked as though a foul would be given for handball – but with no VAR in operation, nothing was awarded and play continued.

Kerr broke free on the right flank once more, playing a lovely ball to Reiten across goal who finished smartly – but the goal was ruled out for offside. These two back-to-back chances for the home side gave the supporters a lift and they immediately burst into song, willing their team on in their attempt to find an equaliser.

The game had certainly livened up in the second half of the opening 45, and a great run from Barcelona left back Rolfo into the Chelsea box required a last ditch tackle from Eriksson to prevent the Swedish full-back from getting the shot away cleanly.

Chelsea squandered another big chance soon after, seining the ball cleared off the line after Kerr and Reiten combined on the edge of the box. Lucy Bronze was forced into making a great block with her shoulder to deny the goal-bound effort.

The tie had really opened up by this point, and was living up to the billing following a nervy opening minutes from a home side that are so used to dominating matches week in, week out in the Women’s Super League. As the half drew to a close, Barcelona were looking to regain a foothold and keep pushing for a crucial second goal.

They were almost successful in their quest, following brilliant play from Graham Hansen once again. Her determination to keep the ball in play allowed her to beat Charles by the corner flag and drive into the box, though her cross to the back post wasn’t met and the winger was flagged offside.

With the second half back underway, Emma Hayes was the first manager to role the dice and make a substitution – as Lauren James replaced Jelena Cankovic in a bid to bolster the Blues’ attacking options. The start of the second half seemed to replicate the first period, with the Blues coming out a little slow and sloppy – and Barcelona on the front foot dictating possession and creating chances. Barcelona’s pace served to be a continual problem for Chelsea’s back line and the introduction of Mariona Caldentey for Geyse on the hour mark did nothing to alleviate this problem for Chelsea.

On the 65th minute, the worries of England fans for the upcoming World Cup were compounded by an apparent knee injury to Lucy Bronze, forcing her to hobble off the pitch and to be replaced by Marta Torrejon. The right-back was later seen with ice on her knee, and fans will be hoping that she doesn’t join Millie Bright and Leah Williamson on the sidelines.

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As the final twenty minutes began, the game started to become ragged for the home side with their pursuit of a positive outcome from the game – but they were still unable to be inventive enough in the final third to cause Barcelona any significant problems, with the away side still looking more likely to extend their lead.

Both sides made a triple substitution as the clock started to wind down, with Pernille Harder returning for her first appearance since November – and she was met with raucous applause from the crowd. However, her introduction didn’t have the desired impact on the result, as the game finished in a fairly comfortable fashion for Barcelona.

Although the first leg ends in defeat for Emma Hayes’ team, and a trip to the Camp Nou on Thursday would be considered as one of the hardest fixtures for an away side to undertake, the London club are by no means out of this tie. They will be hoping for a much improved performance in the second leg if they want to overturn the deficit and join either Arsenal or VfL Wolfsburg in the final, which will be held in Eindhoven.

Attendance: 27,697