UWCL Final – Barça Blow the Blues Away…

It took FC Barcelona Femení just 36 minutes to drive a wrecking ball through Chelsea’s aspirations to win their first Champions League title at the Gamla Ullevi in Gothenburg. The Spaniards were ahead inside the first minute from Melanie Leupolz’s unfortunate own goal. Alexia Putellas then doubled their advantage from the penalty spot. Aitana Bonmatí’s neat finish made it 3-0 on 20 minutes, and wingers Lieke Martens and Caroline Graham Hansen combined for Barcelona’s fourth with nine minutes of the first half still remaining. Chelsea were better after the interval but couldn’t get on the board. Lluís Cortés’ side were comfortable in game management mode and looked to have carved out a fifth goal late on – Asisat Oshoala’s effort was ruled out for offside. It is Barcelona’s first UWCL title and they become the first club to have won the Champions League in both the men’s and women’s competitions…

Chelsea 0-4 FC Barcelona

Barcelona Manager Lluís Cortés: An historic first Champions League Title for the Club

“We started, right from the beginning, with confidence. We didn’t feel as much pressure as we did in other games. The final is to be won, and that’s what we did. We’ve been writing history and tonight it’s the whole of Spanish women’s football history that wins, not just us. To be the first to reach the final and win it is fantastic for us.”

Lluís Cortés, Manager, FC Barcelona, via UEFA.com

Barcelona’s route to the Final had begun with straightforward aggregate victories over PSV Eindhoven (8-2) and Fortuna Hjørring (9-0) before they despatched Manchester City 5-1 in the Quarter Final (despite a rare defeat in the second leg). Paris Saint-Germain offered a stiffer test in the Semi-Final but two first half goals from Martens in the second tie proved to be unassailable and they held on to record a 3-2 win over the two meetings.

Chelsea had to qualify for the Round of 32 and did so without any trouble. Once in the knock-out phase, the Blues beat SL Benfica 8-0 over two legs before riding their luck somewhat against Atlético de Madrid. Maren Mjelde would convert a penalty in each tie for Chelsea while the Spanish side would miss three (two saved, one off target).

A 3-1 aggregate victory over Atlético put them into the Quarter Final to face perennial ‘bogey team’ VfL Wolfsburg in a double-header at the Szusza Ferenc Stadion, Budapest. Chelsea were under the cosh in a torrid first leg, but ruthless in front of goal. Sam Kerr and Harder struck to put Chelsea in charge (2-1). They won the return 3-0.

Bayern Munich edged the first leg of the Semi-Final 2-1, but Melanie Leupolz’s away goal was vital. When Fran Kirby gave Chelsea the lead at Kingsmeadow the tie was in their hands. Sarah Zadrazil’s blistering 25-yard half volley swung momentum towards the Germans but Ji So-yun and Harder wrested back control before a frenetic finish that saw last-ditch blocks, saves and clearances off the Chelsea goal line in stoppage time. Kirby broke away and made it 4-1 with almost the last kick of the match.

Both teams had won their respective domestic Championships but Barcelona had picked up their title without dropping a single point!

There were one or two surprises in the starting line-ups. Cortés benched club captain Vicky Losada and put midfielder ‘Patri’ Guijarro in at centre back. Chelsea, meanwhile, moved right back Jess Carter to the left to match up with Caroline Graham Hansen and put Niamh Charles in on the right to face Martens. It was a role that Emma Hayes had given the young winger during the WSL season but there were recognised and experienced full-backs in Jonna Andersson and Hannah Blundell on the bench.

Barcelona’s Dutch left winger Lieke Martens: Came out with intent and tore Chelsea to pieces for 45 minutes…

Any notion that a tactical ‘chess match’ was about to play out in Gothenburg was torched within sixty seconds of the kick-off.

Captain for the night Alexia played Martens into space on the left. The Dutch international cut inside Bright and Ji rifling a shot against the cross bar from 20-yards. Graham lobbed the loose ball back into the six-yard area and, as Chelsea scrambled to get it away, Kirby smashed her clearance against Leupolz and it looped over Berger for 1-0.

The Blues should have equalised two minutes later. A short corner was worked to Carter and she clipped in an inch perfect ball which landed plumb in stride for Harder – but the Dane half-volleyed over.

The high tempo start to the game was suiting the Spanish Champions, in fact they were driving that tempo, while Chelsea looked nervy and hesitant on the ball. Bonmatí robbed Ji in midfield and set Graham on her way. The Norwegian squared to Alexia and she threaded a simple ball to Jenny Hermoso on the edge of the penalty box, but the striker’s low drive flashed past the upright. It wouldn’t be the last time this kind of fluid, quick, transitional football would undo the Blues’ back line.

Moments later Chelsea gave the ball away close to their goal again. Berger did well to tip Bonmatí’s snap shot over the bar. Only five minutes had elapsed at this point.

Harder missed another golden opportunity for the Londoners, clipping wide after Sam Kerr’s clever flick had played her in behind the Barça defence. It was not the sort of profligacy one would associated with the forward and the Spaniards would make them pay shortly afterwards.

Martens burst through central midfield and tried to play Graham into the penalty box. Full back Carter seemed to have covered the danger but stumbled. Graham seized on the error, got her head up and cut the ball back for Hermoso who pulled the trigger and then went to ground as Leupolz ran across her to block.

Refereee Riem Hussein gave herself a moment and then pointed to the penalty spot. She was in a good position to make the decision but it seemed a very soft award. The Chelsea midfielder got in front of her opponent and wasn’t even facing her when she made the block. VAR was in use for the final, though, and the referee’s decision was upheld.

Alexia placed the ball, stepped up and calmly slotted down the middle as Berger dived left.

When Harder headed over another chance in the 16th minute it was already looking like one of those matches that Chelsea were losing rather than Barcelona winning. The Blues weren’t playing at all well and yet they’d had chances to stay in it.

Aitana Bonmatí grabbed Barça’s third goal to go with her Player of the Match Award…

Clad in salmon-pink shirts and lime green shorts, the Spanish Champions found the perfect riposte to Chelsea’s continued wastefulness in the 20th minute. Martens was again the instigator, racing past Charles down the left touchline and playing a ball into Hermoso on the edge of the penalty area. She laid it off to Alexia who immediately fed Bonmatí’ in behind. Carter had tracked the run, but her challenge wasn’t strong enough, and the Barça midfielder stayed beautifully balanced as she nutmegged Berger for 3-0.

If a comeback was going to be possible Chelsea desperately needed to get the next goal.

Ji’s ball over the top was inviting for Kerr to get to ahead of her marker, but her attempted lob over onrushing keeper Sandra Paños was misdirected and another half chance went begging.

Instead Barcelona got their fourth. Bonmatí swung the ball out to Martens on the left and the winger outpaced Charles twice to get to the byline and cross for Graham who’d stolen a yard on Carter and tapped in from close range.

Chelsea kept plugging away trying to find a goal before the break. Harder cut inside from the left but Paños made a straightforward save low to her left. And the Barça stopper would make another simple gather from Ji’s 25-yard free-kick in stoppage time.

Emma Hayes took Leupolz off at half time and replaced her with the more attacking Guro Reiten who would offer more width down Chelsea’s left, as well accurate corners and free-kicks. Harder got on to one such ball clipped in from the right but couldn’t get enough power on her header to trouble the keeper.

With the Spaniards four goals to the good, Chelsea were now just looking to get something – anything – from their evening. Martens had largely done her damage for the night so Niamh Charles abandoned some of her defensive duties and looked to get forward and support the attack more. She created an opening for Kirby to put in a cross from the right but Kerr headed it wide.

As if to illustrate that the ‘rub of the green’ would not be with the English champions on the night, Magda Eriksson was clumsily bundled over in the penalty area by María León and the referee wasn’t in the least bit interested in awarding a penalty. It was arguably a better shout than the one Hermoso got in the first half and yet VAR didn’t even appear to be called on.

Speaking of Hermoso, she nearly got herself a goal in the 65th minute, stealing a yard on the central defenders but driving into the side netting.

Charles engineered another opening with Kirby, but sliced her shot from the edge of the penalty box. The ball spun to Harder unmarked at the back post but she miscued her volley, which popped up for Kerr but the Australian got her header all wrong and powered it up, up and away… It summed up Chelsea’s night.

Before the end substitute Beth England put another header over the horizontal and Harder fizzed in one last distance effort that was borne more of desperation than anything else. Barcelona did put the ball in the net one more time when the fresh legs of Losada and Oshoala combined to pick apart a tiring Chelsea backline, but the Assistant Referee ruled it out for offside.

Emma Hayes: “The game was over before it began…”

“Today was difficult because the game was over before it began. That is what is so difficult to reflect on. To concede so early, and then we had two good chances, then they got the second from a penalty. Ann hasn’t had a save to make the whole game, yet we’ve lost the game 4-0. The damage was done. It’s something we will learn from. This is the next step up, and I thought we showed some naivety at times. I felt calm coming into the game, but some of the inexperience cost us. They will grow from that, players will improve. I have a quiet dressing room right now, but they are proud of the shift they have put in. It’s been a wonderful season for us.”

Emma Hayes, Manager, Chelsea, via chelseafc.com

The Blues have had a great season domestically but, in the Champions League at least, they have had their share of luck in getting to the final – even the best teams need it. But that luck ran out spectacularly in the first ten minutes of this final, with a crazy own goal and a penalty award that wouldn’t have seen the light of day with some other refs.

That said, Barça began this contest with more intensity and, importantly, the technical accuracy to execute at speed. Chelsea couldn’t deal with the high press and played themselves into trouble near their own goal several times early on, and then didn’t look to go more direct.

This was disappointing given they had the film of Manchester City making these same errors at the Quarter Final stage. Barcelona forced errors and didn’t waste those early opportunities.

There are bound to be some questions around the utilisation of two young and inexperienced players at full back by Emma Hayes. When Maren Mjelde suffered a season ending injury a few weeks back, Charles and Carter were generally rotated in and out of the right back spot; something that is viable when you know you’re going to have more of the ball than your opponent.

But against Europe’s most prolific side? Containing two of the best wingers on the continent?

Jonna Andersson had been a regular fixture on the left of defence – was she carrying a knock? The pre-game press conference didn’t suggest that was the case. She was on the bench. Andersson did get exposed against Wolfsburg’s pace in the first leg of the Quarter Final, but wasn’t dropped until the second tie against Munich in the semis.

The other disappointment for Blues’ fans will be how no one in the group was able to step up in a difficult moment. Resilience has been a big part of the club’s recent success. Here, Chelsea’s midfield in particular was as bad as they’ve probably ever been in this iteration.

And the front three of Kirby, Kerr and Harder – how gutting must it be for Emma Hayes that they ALL had an off night? There were goals to be had early on. Kirby found some of her groove in the second half, but by then the match was a done deal.

Meanwhile Barça’s front three were excellent, delivering the performance levels that the pre-match hype promised. And behind them a midfield that just ran Chelsea ragged. In Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí (who won the player of the match) Barcelona’s La Masia has produced (dare I say it?) female analogues for club legends such as Andrés Iniesta and Xavier Hernández – the archetypal, ultra competitive Barcelona midfielders who can do it all. These are the kind of high quality players that will surely drive Spain’s national team deep into next year’s European Championship knock out phases. Spain is the next emerging super power on the continent; one that should now be able to consistently match up against Germany, France and the Netherlands.

Captain for the night: Midfielder Alexia Putellas doubles Barcelona’s lead from the penalty spot…

“It’s spectacular: in eight years in the competition, for half the years we have made the semi-finals. In the three years we have made two finals, and we have won the second one. We trust so much in what we do, we believe that the way we play will lead us to success like today. To be constantly seeking to be better, that is the way forward. We will be celebrating for a few days and when it is over we will go for more. We are normalising what it is to win, and winning is very difficult. Now we have to commit ourselves to continuing this legacy that I have the feeling has just begun.”

Alexia Putellas, Midfielder, FC Barcelona, via UEFA.com

Football sure does serve up some delicious narratives. If anyone could understand implicitly what Chelsea’s players were going through, emotionally, at the final whistle on Sunday night, it would be Barcelona’s players – well seven of them at least. In May 2019 they found themselves 4-0 down in a Champions League Final to Lyon. Just 30 minutes had been played as Ada Hegerberg et al ran riot. That night Asisat Oshoala’s late goal did stand but it would have been scant consolation. And no doubt a few Barça players took their medals off well before they had even left the podium…

Two years on and pretty much that same group are the ‘Champions of Europe’ delivering the kind of marquee performance that even had Hayes retrospectively declaring Barcelona as “favourites” after the event.

Whether this horrendous and very public defeat becomes ‘grist to the Chelsea mill’, well that remains to be seen. But it’s not impossible to think that most of this group will be back in a final sooner rather than later and that Emma Hayes might just have added a couple of key pieces that can get them over the line.

The last words, though, come from the new champions for whom this victory is a start, not an end. Long-term European domination is the aim – a foreboding message for their rivals. For years the Women’s Champions League has desperately needed a new winner. It’s got one and they’re really good. Now other teams will have to figure out how to prevent FC Barcelona from becoming the ‘next Lyon’ and building their own ten-year dynasty…

“We were playing for the biggest European title we could play for but the idea was to normalise this week. We’ve been working a lot, for years, for this game. The idea is to keep dominating European football. Winning this game is part of the journey, and losing in Budapest [2019] was part of it, too. I’m absolutely sure we’re going to celebrate today a lot, but tomorrow – or maybe the day after – we’re going to start thinking about the next steps and what we can win. That’s good for a coach, because you can ask the players for a lot.”

Lluís Cortés, Manager, FC Barcelona, via UEFA.com

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