A stoppage-time equaliser from Pernille Harder against her former club earned the Blues a point in a thrilling match at Kingsmeadow to open our Champions League group-stage campaign.
Our first outing in the competition since losing last season’s final to Barcelona came against a familiar foe, as we renewed acquaintances with a team we’ve met in all but one of our previous seasons in the competition. Last term’s quarter-final tie between the sides was the first time we’d managed to get the better of the German club, so it was understandable that Emma Hayes labelled it her favourite win as Chelsea boss.
Things started so promisingly for the Blues in this mouth-watering clash on matchday one of Group A, as we took an early lead through a brilliant finish by Sam Kerr. The Australian took a sumptuous pass from Ji So-Yun in her stride to lob the keeper from outside the box, continuing her impressive run against Wolfsburg as she scored in a third straight game against the German side.
However, two defensive lapses allowed the visitors to go into half-time with a 2-1 lead, as first Tabea Wassmuth slotted home and then Jill Roord curled a wonderful finish past Ann-Katrin Berger to turn the game completely on its head.
Wolfsburg extended their advantage early in the second half, as another mistake allowed Wassmuth to net her second, but the Blues responded positively to pull one back soon after. Bethany England was the scorer, as she drilled home from inside the box to give us hope.
It looked like our second-half effort would be in vain, however, until Harder popped up to finish smartly deep into stoppage time, ensuring honours were even in this six-goal thriller.
In truth, a point felt like the least we deserved from a thoroughly entertaining clash, and we’ll be back in European action a week today with a trip to Juventus, which is preceded by another home game against Leicester City on Sunday.
The headline news from Hayes’ team selection, for once, wasn’t about the players named in the starting XI; rather, it was the return of a stalwart to the matchday squad after a lengthy absence, as Maren Mjelde was named among the substitutes seven months after suffering a serious knee injury.
The manager did, however, make two changes to the team that overcame Brighton at the weekend. Ji returned to the centre of midfield in place of Sophie Ingle, joining Melanie Leupolz, with Erin Cuthbert and Guro Reiten either side of them.
There was also a starting berth for England, who came into the attack ahead of Fran Kirby – who Hayes said wasn’t 100 per cent – to join Kerr, making her 50th appearance for the club, and former Wolfsburg player Harder.
We remained unchanged at the back, which meant Berger lined up behind Millie Bright, Carter and captain Magda Eriksson, and the Blues took to the field wearing black armbands in memory of our dear colleague and friend, Sam Hasan, who sadly passed away yesterday afternoon.
We took the game to Wolfsburg from the opening whistle, winning a corner from our first attack and showing our intention to press them high up the pitch in a bid to win back possession in dangerous areas.
It was an uncomfortable start for the visitors and they needed a wonderful save by Almuth Schult to keep the scores level in the 10th minute. Wassmuth was booked for bringing down Reiten on the edge of the box and Ji stepped up to clip a wonderful effort towards the bottom corner, only for the keeper to somehow keep it out.
It was a short-lived reprieve, however, as we took the lead just over a minute later. This time Ji turned provider, playing a wonderful pass from inside her own half to put Kerr in on goal, and the Australian sent a delightful lob over Schult and into the far corner. A 36th Chelsea strike is some return from 50 games for one of the world’s leading forwards.
We looked to be in complete control of the game, as Wolfsburg appeared disorganised at the back and unable to play their way out of trouble, but they soon found themselves level completely against the run of play. A long punt up field wasn’t dealt with by Eriksson or Berger, which allowed Wassmuth to nip in and capitalise on the uncertainty with a simple finish into an empty net.
It was a perfect example of Champions League football, up against an elite side; one lapse in concentration can quickly change the course of the game. Although the Blues responded positively, with England forcing Schult into another good save at the end of a well-worked move and Leupolz curling a shot just past the post, Wolfsburg were now looking more at ease and asserting themselves in the attacking third.
Their improvement was rewarded with a second goal just past the half-hour mark, although once again we were masters of our own downfall. Berger played a goal-kick to Leupolz under pressure from Lena Oberdorf and the ball fell kindly on the edge of the box to Roord, who curled a brilliant finish into the far corner.
Going into the game, Wolfsburg had a record of five wins from five previous visits to England, while our only three defeats in 15 Champions League home games had come against the side from Germany. The half-time whistle came at a good time for the Blues, giving the players a chance to regroup in a bid to set that record straight.
Things went from bad to worse shortly after the break, however, as Wolfsburg extended their lead following another defensive lapse by the Blues. Carter looked to have the situation under control as she chased a long ball towards the corner, but her back pass to Berger didn’t have enough on it, which allowed Wassmuth to nip in and score her second of the night.
We almost pulled one back immediately, as both Ji and Harder shot at goal during a penalty box scramble, but frustration soon turned to joy from the resulting corner as England drilled home a low finish to get us back within one. If this is a sign of what the Champions League group stage has to offer then strap yourselves in for a thrilling ride!
The Blues were pushing hard for an equaliser, but the visitors remained a threat on the counter and we needed a fantastic save from Berger to push aside a shot from Wassmuth, denying the Wolfsburg forward her hat-trick.
Changes from both sides followed, as Hayes sent on Kirby in place of England, while one of Wolfsburg’s goalscorers, Roord, made way for Shanice Van De Sanden, the former Lyon and Liverpool wide player. Further Chelsea reinforcements followed, as Niamh Charles and Jessie Fleming replaced Reiten and Ji.
While the new faces injected energy and urgency to proceedings, we were struggling to create any chances of note. Passes were becoming a little more rushed, frustration was creeping into our game, and as we entered the final 10 minutes it was a time for cool heads.
That applied to both sides, and Wolfsburg were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Rauch lunged into a challenge on Harder that gave the referee a big decision to make. Unfortunately for those of a Blues persuasion, we had to settle for a throw-in.
The hope when you’re chasing the game is that you’ll get one big chance late on to salvage something. It seemed as though that opportunity for Chelsea had fallen to Cuthbert, who was found on the edge of the box by Harder, but she couldn’t steer her shot the right side of the post.
And then, just as it looked like all hope was lost, salvation arrived in the form of a player Wolfsburg know all too well. Two minutes into stoppage time, Harder came back to haunt her former club with a typically opportunistic finish after Leupolz had put the visiting defence under pressure.
A point was surely the least we had deserved for our attacking performance, but still we needed a last-ditch intervention from Berger to prevent Wolfsburg from nicking it in the final seconds. It had been a quite stunning start to our Champions League group stage campaign, with both sides giving it absolutely everything at Kingsmeadow.
The other game in Group A between Servette and Juventus finished 3-0 to the visitors, and we’ll come up against them in Turin next week on matchday two. Before then, we’ve got a home game against newly promoted Leicester City on Sunday. Kick-off for that one is 12.30pm – click here to buy your tickets now!
Chelsea (3-4-1-2) Berger; Bright, Carter (Ingle 87), Eriksson (c); Cuthbert, Ji (Fleming 75), Leupolz, Reiten (Charles 75); Harder; Kerr, England (Kirby 64)
Unused subs Musovic, Telford, Nouwen, Mjelde, Spence, Andersson, Fox
Scorers Kerr 12, England 51, Harder 90+2
Wolfsburg (4-2-3-1) Schult; Hendrich, Wedemeyer, Janssen, Rauch; Oberdorf, Lattwein; Wassmuth (Knaak 79), Huth (c), Wolter (Starke 89); Roord (Van De Sanden 70)
Unused Subs Kassen, Weiss, Blasse, Smits, Svava, Cordes
Scorers Wassmuth 18, 48, Roord 33
Booked Wassmuth 10, Roord 38, Oberdorf 79
Referee Lina Lehtovaara (Finland)