Europe feels different for Chelsea this year – Hayes

25 January 2024 0 By Total Football News

Chelsea celebrating going 1-0 up against Real MadridChelsea have won three of their five group matches and sit top of the table

Progression to the quarter-finals of the Women’s Champions League was the minimum requirement for Chelsea this season – a sign of the immense strides being made at the club – despite the underwhelming fashion in which they did it.

In a campaign in which both Manchester United and Arsenal failed to make it through the qualifying rounds, Chelsea have gone about their business relatively smoothly, without needing to stamp their authority.

They were strong favourites to top their group which included BK Hacken, Paris FC and Real Madrid, and Chelsea have achieved that with a game to spare.

While expected – even manager Emma Hayes said it was “the bare minimum” – it is a sign of Chelsea’s growing reputation in Europe, that they are now comfortably among the continent’s elite on a consistent basis.

It will be their fifth quarter-final appearance in the past six seasons with their only disappointment coming in 2022 when they exited at the group stages just months after coming runners-up for the first time to Barcelona.

And they are yet to hit their highest levels this season.

Injuries to star striker Sam Kerr and captain Millie Bright have had an impact, while summer signing Catarina Macario is still not fully recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.

They were among those absent for Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid, while January recruit Nathalie Bjorn was not yet registered to play in the competition.

Those injuries, combined with a hectic playing schedule, led to a flat display at Stamford Bridge with Hayes even describing it as “boring”.

But winning in spectacular style was not necessary. Chelsea have been here before, they know what it takes to progress, and they have plenty of room for improvement in the quarter-finals.

“It feels different. Europe feels different for us this year. It’s the experience piece. We’ve played all these teams before, we’ve travelled and got used to it,” said Hayes.

“Now the competition for us is to progress beyond the quarter-finals. This block of work is where we have to get everyone fit and ready and find our best form.

“I’ve always said your best form isn’t all the time. You have to find results with performances that are solid and consistent. We will have to build on the last two games.”

Erin Cuthbert against Real MadridErin Cuthbert wore the armband for Chelsea in the Women’s Champions League for the first time against Real Madrid

Momentum is slowly building after Chelsea’s European campaign got off to a frustrating start in November when two controversial decisions played a role in a 2-2 draw in Madrid.

They needed a second-half hat-trick from Kerr to beat Paris FC in their next game having gone in level at half-time, and a goalless draw with BK Hacken followed before their final two victories in the group stages.

While Chelsea are used to dominating domestically, they have needed to mature and develop in Europe, mastering various challenges such as different playing styles, more travel and a condensed fixtures schedule.

But they look far more at ease now than they did earlier in Hayes’ tenure and Wednesday’s hard-fought victory was the perfect example of their ability to grind out results with efficiency and know-how.

Hayes has also been able to use this year’s group stages to test her squad in different ways – Erin Cuthbert wore the armband for the first time in Europe this week, while young goalkeeper Hannah Hampton made her debut in the competition.

On giving captaincy responsibilities to Cuthbert, Hayes said: “I’ve intentionally tried to develop their leadership by putting them in those positions – and I’ve intentionally picked younger players to do that.

“They are senior enough to take that. Niamh Charles did it really well [against Manchester United], and Erin did it well in moments [against Real Madrid]. We have to do that. We can’t just rely on Millie Bright.

“There are senior members doing it without an armband but I deliberately wanted to put it on Erin and Niamh in particular.”

There has been rotation in attacking positions too with Mia Fishel, Lauren James and Fran Kirby all switching between central roles to fill in for Kerr’s absence on Wednesday, while youngster Aggie Beever-Jones is a valuable option on the bench.

A sign of confidence was that victory was never really in doubt against Real Madrid. When Athenea del Castillo scored the equaliser, Chelsea regained their lead a minute later.

This season has also seen Chelsea play all of their home games in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge, attracting 11,262 fans on Wednesday, having welcomed just 3,450 for the win over Paris FC in November.

Far tougher tests await in the knockout stages, of course, and Chelsea will need to lift their level, but they will be satisfied with their steady progress so far.

They go through with three wins from five matches, unbeaten in the group and with key players still to return, as well as the reportedly imminent addition of Colombia forward Mayra Ramirez, who will add even more depth to their talented squad.