It had been a chance to jet-propel British women’s football into another stratosphere. It held out the prospect of a side within British shores becoming the first to claim the women’s and men’s Champions League trophies in the same season. But Chelsea were dealt a brutal footballing lesson in a devastating first half which delivered Barcelona and Spain a first European title.
Emma Hayes’ players were out-thought and out-muscled in 45 minutes of football which left them gasping for air, though the emphatic score-line owed something to the four clear chances which Danish striker Pernille Harder could not put away. The counter-attacking menace evident all season did not materialise against a physically and technically superior side.
The biblical pre-match rain had cleared and blue skies had materialised by the time Hayes’ players took to the field in strong spirits, Sam Kerr leaping to head in off the underside of the cross bar in one of the warm-up drills.
Barcelona were crowned European Champions with a stunning 4-0 victory over Chelsea
It was a disappointing evening for Chelsea who conceded four goals in a disastrous first half
They were playing on sacred ground, where the story of British sides facing Spanish favourites in Europe is concerned. It was at the adjoining Ullevi stadium that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen defeated Real Madrid in 1983, the first European prize for a manager with whom Hayes has justifiably been compared.
One of the very few questions that Hayes had short shrift for in a pre-match press discussion came from the Spanish journalist who put it to her that Barcelona were favourites. She does not go in for that psych-ops routine in which managers claim to have minimal chance in order to prevail.
But it was for good reason that the bookmakers favoured Barcelona. The club might have spent nothing last summer, while Chelsea were paying a world record fee for Pernille Harder, but they have built something very substantial. A club whose teams are all imbued with the Cruyff philosophy and which has made individual fitness programmes for players a priority ever since a 4-1 annihilation by Lyon in in the 2019 final underlined a physical deficit that they knew had to be matched. That final has haunted Barcelona ever since.
Chelsea had disastrous start as Melanie Leupolz scored an own goal after just one minute
Alexia Putellas fired home a penalty to put Barca in control only 14 minutes into the final
Barca captain Putellas celebrates after putting her side 2-0 up in Gothemburg
It was Chelsea who learned how the experience felt, last night. For the young full backs Niamh Charles and Jess Carter, who bore a terrible brunt in a punishing first half which left the team four goals in arrears, this will taking some recovering from.
Lieke Martens’ match up on the Spanish left against Charles, who had been outstanding in the semi-final, was a particularly brutal one. Across the pitch Carter was humbled by Caroline Graham Hansen, time and again.
Barcelona tore out of the blocks in a way which left Chelsea reeling and unable to know what was hitting them. The game was a mere just 30 seconds old when Martens raced away from Charles and curled a shot against the bar. Chelsea were unable to organise themselves as the ball dropped and after a sequence of pinball football, the ball fell to Fran Kirby, whose attempted clearance ricocheted in of Melanie Leupolz.
It was misfortune and yet a grave premonition of the Spanish threat. Hayes’ side could have twice established parity through Penille Harder in a chaotic opening ten minutes, though Barcelona were simply quicker in action and thought. The defenders were simply unable to keep up with their crisp, precise exchanges of possession as they fell 3-0 behind inside an opening half hour which effectively killed the match.
Aitana Bonmati finished off a slick move to get Barca’s third after only 20 minutes
Caroline Graham Hansen added to Chelsea’s woes with a fourth before half time
Martens’ threat was particularly brutal. She exposed the high defensive position Mille Bright had taken on 14 minutes and raced into the Chelsea third, despatching Caroline Graham Hansen who barged through the threat of Jess Carter. The Norwegian induced more panic by cutting back to Jenni Hermoso, who was caught by Leupolz’s standing leg to secure the penalty that captain Alexia Putellas dinked in.
Martens demonstrated her superiority again for the third, racing towards the byline to trigger a one-touch goal of quite beautiful geometry. Hermoso eased a pass back for Putellas, whose precision fist-time ball, punched through the lines, found the darting move of Aitana Bonmati who drew Ann-Katrin Berger and rolled the ball in through her legs.
Martens outmuscled Charles again for the fourth, cutting back from the byline for Graham Hansen who was faster to the ball to Charles to poke in.
Hayes gathered the players together at this stage, though truthfully there seemed little she could bring. This was the same ‘carousel’ that left Ferguson looking so lost after his Manchester United side’s defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at Wembley, ten years ago this month. Hayes’ options were limited. Guro Reiten, who arrived for Leupolz after the break, provide support against Martens. But the young full-backs were left to find what answers they could.
It was a bitterly disappointing night for Emma Hayes and her side who were the second best
The Barca celebrations had started long before full-time with Chelsea unable to fight back
The manager’s words at the interval did help. Chelsea showed signs of a recovery. They pressed high and began finding Kirby, the outstanding player of their domestic season, could not find the touches to play her team in. Harder somehow managed to spurn another chance after Reiten’s free kick presented an elementary header. She also tried to find Sam Kerr when she should have volleyed another chance. A damage limitation exercise was the best if could be.
For Hayes, it was a night which suggested the trophy she has made a quest of winning is some distance off. Her relentless energy and drive tell us that this experience will be a defining one for her team. But even she will take some time to recover.