What a contest! Oh, what a contest! In one of the finest games of football witnessed at Kingsmeadow since Chelsea Women moved to the ground, the Blues beat the Italian side Fiorentina 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 contest, atoning for their dismal capitulation to Arsenal in the league
What a contest! Oh, what a contest! In one of the finest games of football witnessed at Kingsmeadow since Chelsea Women moved to the ground, the Blues beat the Italian side Fiorentina 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 contest, atoning for their dismal capitulation to Arsenal in the league at the weekend.
Manager Emma Hayes roused her troops, captain Kaz Carney led from the front, and the women in blue went into battle, slaying – or at least seriously wounding – the visitors thanks to an eighth-minute penalty which initially felt like the precursor to a goal avalanche.
But Fiorentina – Italy’s first fully professional women’s team – proved obstinate opponents, physically strong and not afraid to collect a sheaf of yellow cards in a string of robust clashes, and their keeper, Stephanie Ohrstrom, proved the heroine of the hour, denying Chelsea with save after save after save.
From the Blues’ perspective, half the job has been done, with the home clean sheet a significant bonus ahead of the return leg on Halloween in Florence, at the 43,000-seater Stadio Artemio Franchi… an intimidating place to play after an evening in front of 804 souls at a crumbling, past-sell-by-date former council athletics ground in Norbiton.
“They’ll have to come out, but we need to win the game,” said Hayes as she looked ahead to October 31, hinting that the Blues’ tactics are likely to be a mix of absorption and counterpunch in Tuscany.
Carney was pleased with her team’s performance. “The clean sheet is really, really important. We stuck together and that performance tonight was magnificent.”
Both Hayes and Carney agreed that bouncing back from a 5-0 home defeat to the Gunners on Sunday had been crucial, especially with another stern test – an away league encounter at Birmingham – waiting this weekend.
Three tough games in a week meant Hayes rotated a squad bolstered by the return from injury of both Yankee/Kiwi Ali Riley and Deanna Cooper. Riley, making her full debut for the Blues after coming on as a sub in Sunday’s whitewash by the Gooners, demonstrated just why she was signed from the Swedish side Rosengard. Her pace is blistering, her commitment whole-hearted (she was one of five players booked by the card-happy French ref) and her determination complete.
Yet the Blues’ organisation and focus was so strong in this lively, immensely watchable clash that it is almost unfair to pick out individuals. Hannah Blundell was superb, Millie Bright (who took over the captain’s armband when Carney was subbed) was a match-saver in defence with a series of crucial interceptions, Fran Kirby was industrious, Erin Cuthbert a blur of zippiness, Sophie Ingle simply unbeatable, Beth England irrepressible and Ramona Bachmann a delight to watch as she ran at, through and round every obstacle that Fiorentina could put in her way.
Carney’s goal came early after Cuthbert crossed from the right and the ball struck Sephanie Breitner on the hand. The Chelsea captain buried the penalty in the corner… but it was to be the only time that Ohrstrom was beaten. Hedvig Lindahl, who had little to do in the Chelsea goal, was so impressed by her fellow Swede’s performance that she carried her opponent’s spongebag off the pitch for her at the end in a gesture of admiration for another member of the net-minders’ union!
The pivotal moment came in the 77th minute when Ohrstrom rebuffed a co-ordinated Chelsea onslaught. She made a triple save, getting up each time and repositioning herself, as first Carney then Kirby, twice, fired point-blank shots at her.
Hayes said after this exhausting and exhilarating match that it had taken the squad a few days to put defeat by Arsenal out of their minds. She said Chelsea were having to learn to live with the high expectations placed on them as domestic champions, and attributed her evident skills at galvanising her team down to her new experience as a mother. “I show my maternal side to them,” she joked, adding that “lots of cups of tea” had been needed to ease the pain. “We love to sit and chinwag,” she said with a grin.
Putting everything in perspective, she added: “I’ve got a baby’s bum to change when I get home!”
Kaz Carney fully justified Hayes’ choice for the captain’s armband with this sterling display of leadership and inspiration. “When you’re at the bottom, the only way is up, and we stuck together,” she said of the rapid and comprehensive recovery of poise since Sunday’s debacle.
She was gracious enough to add that she thought Ohrstrom’s triple save in the second half was “unbelievable”, and that the goalie deserved a lot of credit for her performance.
First up, though, is Birmingham on Sunday lunchtime. Carney knows all about them. She joined the Brummies at the age of 11, and made her debut for them at just 14. “They play innovative, creative football,” she said.