'Chelsea may have produced greatest performance of Hayes' tenure'
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'Chelsea may have produced greatest performance of Hayes' tenure'

Apr 24, 2024
Emma Hayes and Millie Bright celebrate at full-time in Spain
Chelsea had never beaten Barcelona prior to Saturday’s victory at Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys

It is only “half-time” of Chelsea’s Women’s Champions League semi-final tie with Barcelona but they may have just produced the greatest performance of manager Emma Hayes’ tenure.

Celebrations were subdued at full-time as Hayes applauded her side’s efforts and led them over to the away fans in the stands, while Barcelona supporters chanted “yes, we can” in encouragement, their thoughts immediately turning to the second leg.

Hayes was also forward-thinking as she played down the magnitude of the result, saying a reaction from Barcelona would come in London, while appearing largely unsatisfied with a narrow 1-0 lead.

It speaks to the pedigree of their opponents that such a result is met with caution – Barcelona are widely considered the best team in women’s club football and they have caused plenty of heartache for Chelsea before.

Memories of Barcelona’s 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea in the 2021 final were still raw when Caroline Graham Hansen netted in a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge at this stage last season – a result which ultimately cost Chelsea a place in the final.

But the Blues showed progression, drawing in Barcelona, as Hayes’ ambitions of leading Chelsea to European glory took a step in the right direction despite a 2-1 aggregate defeat.

So when they arrived in Spain this time around, there was a growing feeling of optimism, mixed with a desire to bounce back from their Women’s FA Cup exit – and Chelsea showed that hunger in abundance.

They relied on good fortune – helped by the video assistant referee [VAR] overturning a penalty call in the second half and former two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas slicing wide from a few yards out in stoppage-time – but they were always going to need that against Barcelona.

This was a Chelsea performance that will live long in the memories of those travelling fans, who witnessed them upset a giant in Barcelona, and it gives them hope they can get over the line at Stamford Bridge next week.

Hayes’ tactical masterplan

Barcelona react to conceding in Spain
Before Saturday’s first leg, Ballon d’or holder Aitana Bonmati said she expected Chelsea to “compete for everything” this season

Chelsea came away from Spain with a clean sheet, having limited Barcelona to just one shot on target that came in stoppage time, having ridden an onslaught of late pressure from the hosts.

It was a tactical masterplan from Hayes as her side lined up in a back five and exploited space in behind Barcelona’s attacking midfield with threatening wing-backs Johanna Rytting-Kaneryd and Ashley Lawrence putting in strong performances.

In defence, England international Jess Carter made countless blocks and interceptions, while Melanie Leupolz worked tirelessly in midfield to add to a mix of aggression and quality from Erin Cuthbert and Sjoeke Nusken.

Striker Mayra Ramirez stretched Barcelona’s backline and held the ball up as each individual delivered Hayes’ plan in Barcelona.

Their experience was evident too – they slowed the game down in the second half, frustrated a vociferous home crowd by delaying goal-kicks and throw-ins, and did not take risks when it was unnecessary.

It was the perfect start to a semi-final tie which was always going to be decided by a fine details and Hayes knows there is still plenty of battles to win in London.

Saturday’s result was undoubtedly a great one but Hayes demands perfection – and that means winning the tie not just half of it.

“I’m not here to break records – no disrespect to Barcelona – but that’s not a trophy for me,” said Hayes afterwards.

“We’re here to compete for the Champions League and we’re at half-time against the best team in the world, who didn’t have their best game today. Of course we disrupted that, but it doesn’t count for anything.”

There was another rallying cry for supporters to come in their numbers – they have sold 24,000 tickets for the game at Stamford Bridge already – and they will need everything to go their way again when Barcelona’s response arrives.

But in a season where not everything has always gone to plan for Chelsea, this felt like a huge breakthrough in Barcelona.

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