Chelsea Women have reached the Champions League final for the first time in our history, producing a gutsy and clinical performance to see off Bayern Munich in a dramatic semi-final second leg at Kingsmeadow.
Having lost the first leg in Munich 2-1, Emma Hayes knew she had her work cut out to ensure this season’s Champions League run went one better than the last two, both of which ended at the semi-final stage in 2018 and 2019.
‘If you want to go to the next level, you have to produce something you didn’t produce before,’ said the manager in her pre-match press conference. ‘It has to be better than it was.’
Well, this was better than anything we’ve seen before from Chelsea Women – this was a performance worthy of reaching our maiden Champions League final, against an opponent that is among the very best in Europe.
We got off to a flier, thanks to an early goal from Fran Kirby. The Blues No14 led a swift counter that saw her exchange passes with Sam Kerr, before sliding home a confident finish.
However, Bayern drew level after 30 minutes through an unstoppable strike by Sarah Zadrazil, who rattled one in from 30 yards that left Ann-Katrin Berger with no chance.
This is a Chelsea side that, collectively, has shown great powers of recovery all season and we took the lead once again – and drew level on aggregate – on the stroke of half-time when Ji So-Yun hooked in a right-footed shot that crept into the far corner.
Following a fairly open first half, it was much cagier after the break, but with six minutes to go we moved a step closer to the final when Pernille Harder – so often the scourge of Bayern during her time with Wolfsburg – headed home Jess Carter’s free-kick to put us 3-1 up on the night.
What followed was a nail-biting finale, as the German side threw absolutely everything at us. Somehow, we repelled their attacks time and time again, including one quite brilliant goal-line clearance from Magdalena Eriksson.
Then, with seconds to go, all of that tension was relieved. With the Bayern keeper deep in Chelsea territory, Kirby broke clear to score her second of the game. The outpouring of emotion that followed, from both sides, showed just how much this meant – jubilation for the Blues, despair for the side from Munich.
For the first-time ever, Chelsea Women will play in the Champions League final, when we travel to Gothenburg to face Barcelona, who beat Paris Saint-Germain, on Sunday 16 May.
Before then, however, we’ve got a huge week in the WSL, with games against Tottenham and Reading on the horizon. Win them both and we’ll be champions once again. What an end to the season this could be…
Following the narrow first-leg defeat in Munich last Sunday, Hayes made two changes to her line-up. With Eriksson fit again, the skipper replaced Guro Reiten, while there was also a starting berth for Niamh Charles, who came in for Jonna Andersson
That meant a much-changed back four lined up in front of Berger, as Charles and Carter flanked Millie Bright and Eriksson. The latter’s return allowed Sophie Ingle to step up into midfield, alongside Ji and first-leg scorer Melanie Leupolz, who was facing her former club for the second time in a week. Kirby, Kerr and Harder, with 61 goals between them this term going into the game, provided the firepower.
Just as in the first leg, there was little to separate the two sides, but Chelsea set about attacking Bayern from the first whistle and there was a promising moment when Ji and Kirby linked up well down the right-hand side and the South Korean benefited from a fortuitous bounce to deliver a teasing cross that Ilestedt headed behind under pressure from Harder.
A few minutes later, we took the lead – and it was a goal worthy of gracing any Champions League semi-final. Kirby had been bright from the get-go and she motored through the Bayern midfield before knocking the ball to Kerr, who skipped past a defender and timed the return pass to perfection. Although she still had plenty to do, Super Fran never looked like missing and she slipped a left-footed finish past the keeper and into the far corner.
Buoyed by the early goal, the Blues pushed hard for a second, as Ingle tried her luck with a thumping effort from the edge of the box that flew over the bar. The threat from the visitors remained, however, and had it not been for a last-ditch challenge by Carter, who threw herself at the ball, then Beerensteyn would surely have equalised.
One of the key tactical triumphs for the Blues in this opening half was the way in which we dealt with Glas, who had been so effective in the first leg. This time we were giving the right-back far more to think about going back towards her own goal than in the attacking third and both full-backs ensured we were using the full width of the pitch, which in turn offered more space for our forwards to try and exploit.
Everything was seemingly going to plan but then, out of nowhere, Bayern drew level with an absolutely sensational goal. The Blues would have been fairly happy with the way we dealt with a corner, as Kirby prodded it away to Zadrazil, who was 30 yards from goal. The midfielder had other ideas, though, taking a touch and then steadying herself to rifle in an outrageous strike that left Berger with no chance, as it kissed the crossbar on its way to finding the back of the net. It was the Austrian’s first goal in the competition and it’s unlikely she will ever score a better one.
To our credit, we produced a positive response to the setback, pushing Bayern back once again and posing their rearguard plenty of questions. Referee Esther Stuabli also had one of her own to answer, as Ji went down under a clumsy challenge inside the box, but the Swiss official remained unmoved.
We had a let-off five minutes before the break, though, as Leupolz was caught in possession and the visitors suddenly found themselves in a 3-v-2 situation. Schuller was the beneficiary, but her left-footed attempt went the other side of the near post.
If that felt like a big moment in the tie, it was about to take on even more significance. Ji had scored in both our previous semi-final matches at Kingsmeadow, and she made it three with a goal just before half-time. The Blues No10 hit a free-kick directly at the wall, but the ball rebounded to her and she hit a first-time effort that went through a crowd of bodies and crept into the far corner.
It was a perfect way in which to end a first half that had been high on quality and entertainment. Forty-five minutes had whizzed by in the blink of an eye, and both managers would have had plenty to say to their charges ahead of the final quarter of this last-four tie.
Having led the dance for much of that opening half, there was a slightly different dynamic to the early exchanges after the break, as the Blues were forced to dig deep as our German opponents showed more attacking intent. Although they managed to work themselves into a few promising positions, Berger was largely a bystander between the sticks for the first 20 minutes of the second period.
We remained a constant threat on the counter, though, and at times the only thing that seemed to be missing was the final pass. When we did get that right, at the end of a swift break in the 65th minute, one would probably argue it was the wrong person on the end of it; Ingle’s connection when meeting a pin-point cross from Harder wasn’t quite on the money, and the danger passed.
As we entered the final 15 minutes, Bayern made their second and third substitutions of the match but Hayes continued to resist the urge to shuffle her pack. The manager would have temporarily had her heart in her mouth a few moments later, as Leupolz’s attempted backpass whizzed past Berger, but fortunately it went the right side of the post as far as everyone of a Chelsea persuasion was concerned.
At the other end, Kerr’s immaculate first touch started a counter that ended with a Bayern defender heading behind, and from the resulting set-piece our leading scorer nearly settled the tie with a header that just missed the target. With 10 minutes remaining, it was getting close to all or nothing for both sides.
The visitors were making a rather unwelcome habit of giving away free-kicks around the box, and having been punished by one such set-piece before the end of the first half, the same thing was about to happen with just six minutes remaining in the game. Carter had been taken out by Beerensteyn, who became the third Bayern player to receive a yellow card, and our No7 dusted herself off to fizz in a free-kick that picked out Harder’s run perfectly for a glancing header that flew past the keeper. Was this going to be the goal that sent Chelsea into our first-ever Champions League final?
Hayes followed the goal by sending Erin Cuthbert on in place of Leupolz, and it was quickly followed by a chance for Kerr which could have put the tie to bed. The Australian was sent scampering clear by a wonderful pass down the line by Charles and, with just the keeper to beat, she curled her finish agonisingly wide.
Having been handed a lifeline, Bayern looked to take full advantage of it, as they forced a set-piece at the other end. The ball eventually found its way to Buhl inside the box and her shot was kicked away by Berger and then diverted back towards goal, only for Eriksson to somehow get back on the line and hook it away to safety. It was a sensational piece of defending that kept our narrowest of advantages intact.
Now the kitchen sink was being thrown at us. Bayern sent everyone up, including the keeper, but every shot was blocked by a Chelsea body. This is what it takes to reach the pinnacle of European football.
Into the final seconds of injury time there was still one last opportunity for Bayern, as Dallmann got up at the back post and directed a header across goal that we just about managed to smuggle away. Then, in the dying seconds and with almost everyone in the Chelsea half, the Blues managed to break away through Kirby. The scorer of our first goal steadied herself and, with no goalkeeper between her and the goal, she was left with the simplest of finishes.
The referee’s whistle signalled full-time – it was the last kick of a quite incredible tie and the celebrations could begin in earnest. Hayes was in tears on the touchline, embracing everyone and anyone she came across. This was the culmination of nine years’ hard work, but the job isn’t done. Gothenburg, Sunday 16 May – a date with destiny against Barcelona.
For now, however, it was all about enjoying the moment. Chelsea Women, Champions League finalists. How good does that sound?
Before Gothenburg, there is still a couple of huge matches to come in the WSL, as we look to retain the title we won last season. First up is Tottenham Hotspur at the Hive on Wednesday night, followed by a home game against Reading on Sunday. Win both of them and we’ll be crowned champions once more, no matter what Manchester City do in their final two matches.
Chelsea (4-3-2-1) Berger; Carter, Bright, Eriksson (c), Charles; Ji, Ingle, Leupolz (Cuthbert 88); Kirby, Harder (Spence 90+2); Kerr
Unused subs Musovic, Telford, Blundell, England, Reiten, Fleming, Andersson, Fox
Scorer Kirby 11, 90+5, Ji 43, Harder 84
Booked Carter 48
Bayern Munich (4-4-2) Benkarth; Glas, Ilestedt (Laudehr 88), Hegering, Simon (Wenninger 76); Buhl, Zadrazil, Magull (c), Beerensteyn; Schuller (Dallmann 61), Lohmann (Asseyi 76)
Unused subs Grohs, Lehmann, Boye Sorensen, Corley, Vilhjalmsdottir
Scorer Zadrazil 29
Booked Magull 42, Simon 73, Beerensteyn 83
Referee Esther Staubli (Swiss)