A collective groan went around Chelsea fans as the draw for the next round of the Women’s Champions League was announced on Friday as the Blues found themselves paired with bogey team Wolfsburg. The difference this time, however, is that the Blues have snaffled the German team’s top asset, Pernille Harder. Her insight into the
A collective groan went around Chelsea fans as the draw for the next round of the Women’s Champions League was announced on Friday as the Blues found themselves paired with bogey team Wolfsburg.
The difference this time, however, is that the Blues have snaffled the German team’s top asset, Pernille Harder.
Her insight into the way her former side operates, having spent three years at Wolfsburg, will be crucial if the Blues are to successfully negotiate the quarter-finals.
The first leg will take place at Kingsmeadow on either March 23 or 24, with the return leg in Germany on Mar 31 or Apr 1.
Should Chelsea make it through to the semis, their opponents would likely be Bayern Munich (or Rosengard)… meaning there’s the mouthwatering prospect of a Chelsea v Lyon final in Sweden in May.
Keeping away from both Lyon and Manchester City in the Champions League draw is, the Blues privately admit, a small victory in itself.
Wolfsburg have either won, or been runners-up, in five of the last eight Champions League, beating Chelsea in the Round of 16 in 2016, knocking Chelsea out in the Round of 32 in 2017, and beating the Blues in 2018 as well, at the semi-final stage, before being defeated by Lyon in the final.
Those losses stung Chelsea, who have been building up their squad in the past two years with revenge in mind.
But first there’s the little matter of Sunday’s League Cup final against Bristol City, with Fran Kirby hoping to start at Watford’s Vicarage Road ground having just signed a two-year contract extension, with the option of a third year too.
“It was a no-brainer for me that I wanted to stay,” said Kirby, who has been supported back to full health by the club’s medical team after a heart condition threatened to end her career prematurely.
“I’ve spent a lot of time out ill, and I remember speaking to Emma [Hayes] at the start of the year and said I didn’t want anything given to me… I wanted to earn my spot in this team.”
Hayes – now the only female manager left in the last eight of the Women’s Champions League – admitted before Sunday’s Conti Cup final that Chelsea have clearly become prone to conceding penalties (three over two legs to Atletico Madrid) because that’s what happens when you “shuffle the furniture at the back”.
Enforced changes to the back four – one of the most stable features in this already impressive season – may have led to one or perhaps two of the pens being awarded, and it was only the incompetence of Atletico that meant the Blues weren’t on the back foot in both ties, as each of their spot-kicks was missed.
Chelsea, on the other hand, won two pens over two legs and scored both, thanks to the ice-cool approach of Maren Mjelde.
“I wouldn’t want anyone else to take penalties other than her,” said Hayes. “Atletico passed up their opportunities, Maren didn’t.”
The Chelsea manager is wary of complacency against Bristol City, a team that Chelsea have beaten twice – comfortably – in the league. With Tanya Oxtoby, City’s 38-year-old Aussie manager, heavily pregnant and watching from the stand, it will be Matt Beard on maternity cover in the dug-out.
“I think Bristol have been brilliant on the counter; they’re fighting to stay in the league,” said Hayes. “Matt’s gone in; he’s got the team playing with confidence.”
A worry up front for Chelsea is Beth England’s concussion from the second leg of the Champions League match against Atletico, played on neutral turf in Italy, in the 3-1 aggregate win. She didn’t return to Blighty with the rest of the squad, and remained overnight in Milan.
“She’s groggy, she took a couple of blows to the head,” said Hayes, who declared herself disappointed with the way the match officials had handled the situation. “The scan is clear, but she will be out for the weekend.”
Hayes added: “We haven’t achieved anything yet, and we have to keep our hunger as high as possible.” She cited Wimbledon and Wigan as underdog teams that have played, and won, cup finals without the pressure of expectation.
“They’re the teams you have to watch the most,” she said. “It’s a bit like when you’ve had a satisfying meal. You get comfortable… and I’m not a ‘comfortable’ human; I’m not one who settles on anything other than extraordinary from everyone around me. ‘Complacency’ and ‘comfortable’ are not words that exist in this environment.”
Hayes said that hunger and endurance were key to the rest of Chelsea’s season – still in the hunt for every possible trophy.
“I’ve been the underdog and been the favourite. I’m happy being the favourite, but I don’t rest, I’m not complacent and my background makes sure of that. My feet are on the floor. The moment you underestimate an opponent, you’re finished.”
Her captain, Magda Eriksson, who hopes to be back from injury for Sunday’s final, says that Bristol City are “a team that can beat any team”, adding: “There are no walkovers in this game.”