Big-time Blues

It is only half-time, of course it is, but Chelsea Ladies fans could be forgiven for their euphoria after another unforgettable night at Kingsmeadow left the Blues within touching distance of our first last-eight appearance in the Women’s Champions League.

On an otherwise quiet footballing Wednesday, a bitterly cold evening in Kingston-upon-Thames brought all the conditions for some top-class action. Rosengard, our opponents in this round of 16 tie, are regulars among the European elite and have reached at least the quarter-finals in twice as many Champions League competitions as we have taken part in.

Yet, Chelsea had form in our favour, having treated supporters to spectacular, free-flowing attacking and conceded only once while winning six games from six so far in the domestic campaign. And you could hardly ignore our coming-of-age victory against Bayern Munich in the first knockout round. We were the unseeded side they would have been desperate to avoid.

These were the makings of an immense showdown. You could feel it as Blues thronged out of neighbouring train stations, some over an hour before kick-off, and perhaps more than ever, Kingston Road was rocking with Chelsea chants. The streets of suburban Surrey had barely seen such buzz. And as if we needed any more proof that the Ladies side have made it to the big time, someone was even selling half-and-half scarves outside the stadium.

In some ways, for the neutral, our 3-0 triumph was a disappointment. The first leg was simply never in doubt. Emma Hayes’s side charged out with a complete absence of fear, seeming to relish the prospect of a proper skirmish, which in fact only came after the interval with the Blues a goal in front. How we failed to score in the first half-hour defies explanation as our unstoppable forwards launched an onslaught on the Rosengard goal.

Ramona Bachmann, not short of motivation playing against her former club in her 50th European match, stole the show. She combined brilliantly with Crystal Dunn in particular, who produced another sparkling performance down the left flank, leaving defenders in her wake. Super Fran Kirby, as in Germany, make her presence count, converting a wonderful pass from Maren Mjelde to deliver the Blues an eventual reward for our dominance.

In defence, Chelsea even had the best of the Swedish players. Magdalena Eriksson was a comforting sight for the Blues in the back three as she has been throughout the start of the winter season, appearing in all nine of our outings. Hedvig Lindahl, likewise, looked adept at dealing with the high press against the club where she began her goalkeeping career.

As Hayes explained after the match, the clean sheet was the minimum standard in a tighter second half. Caroline Seger and Anja Mittag, both legends on the European stage, worked hard for Rosengard inside our half, but barring some last-ditch tackles by Millie Bright and Maria Thorisdottir, Chelsea smoothly kept on course for extending our record to five games at our new ground without letting in a goal. Our Ladies are turning Kingsmeadow into a fortress.

Chelsea continued our ascendency and it slowly became clear, if we were the underdogs going into this game, we could still make ourselves favourites for the second leg in Malmö. And if an impressive driven goal by Bachmann left us feeling optimistic, Gilly Flaherty really started the party. The Blues, who made the most of the space afforded to us and were not afraid to challenge the goalkeeper, have a lead worth protecting against the Swedes.

All this, against a club rated third-highest by UEFA, was a definitive sign that Chelsea are eager not only to challenge the best but to hold our own. For the first time in our history, the Blues are at last on the verge of earning a spring break in the Champions League.

By Danny Wittenberg