The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Why Barcelona remains the final frontier for Chelsea and Emma Hayes in the Women’s Champions League

The Champions League is the one trophy that has eluded Hayes during her 12-year reign at Chelsea and this is their final chance

Jamie Braidwood
Friday 19 April 2024 16:18 BST
Chelsea lived up to expectations to reach Champions League semi-finals, says Hayes

It is around this time of the season when Emma Hayes starts to tell her Chelsea players they need to be prepared to “suffer” in the Women’s Champions League. Hayes will have a simple message as her side visit the holders and face the all-conquering Barcelona for the third time in four seasons: Chelsea can’t win this semi-final tie in the first leg, but they can lose it. Getting back to Stamford Bridge for the return leg next week with their hopes of progressing to the Bilbao final still alive will be the priority.

For one final time, Hayes and Chelsea have switched into a siege mentality as they travel to the Lluís Companys Olympic Stadium. The Champions League is the one trophy that has eluded Hayes during her 12-year reign at Chelsea and this is their final chance. The prospect of Hayes crowning an era of domestic dominance by adding a first continental title, departing into the sunset as European champions, is the fairytale ending, but the past few weeks have shown that reality can be rather less forgiving.

It was only last month that Hayes’s side stood 11 games away from the quadruple but defeat to Arsenal in the Continental Cup final and then Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-finals means Chelsea’s avenue to silverware has been stripped back to two fronts. While the Women’s Super League and Champions League remain the biggest titles there are to win, there is a risk that those painful defeats to Arsenal and United have knocked Chelsea off course. After battling through injuries for most of the season, Chelsea have reached the point where they suddenly really do look depleted – lacking their usual fire.

Watch the Women’s Champions League Semi-Finals for free on DAZN

It is understandable. At this stage of the season, when so much is at stake and everyone within Chelsea is desperate for Hayes to finish with the perfect farewell, those defeats have proved deflating to the point of devastating. The time has come for the “mentality monsters” to return – to produce a performance that is built on character and grit. Chelsea may not be at full strength, but they need to be united and re-energised as they travel to Barcelona for a rematch of last season’s semi-final.

Chelsea know what they are facing, after all, a Barcelona team of global superstars who are unbeaten this season, winning 35 of 37 games in all competitions while scoring 164 goals. Barcelona, who are going for their third Champions League title since 2021, possess the homegrown core of Spain’s World Cup winning team, led by the outstanding Aitana Bonmati, combined with a selection of the finest players from the continent in Caroline Graham Hansen and Fridolina Rolfo, as well as England duo Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze.

No team has done more to thwart Chelsea in recent years. That night in Gothenburg three years ago, a Champions League final behind closed doors, proved a defining night for both Barcelona and Chelsea; a 4-0 victory signalled the start of Barcelona’s dominance and remains the closest Chelsea and Hayes have come to lifting the Champions League. As the Catalans ripped Chelsea apart and went four goals up in 36 minutes, it was the performance that announced Barcelona as the side they are now – a team that would be selling out the Nou Camp for this semi-final, were it not closed for renovations.

Chelsea were burned by that May night in Sweden and Hayes vowed that they wouldn’t go through such humiliation again. It was that experience, perhaps, that led Hayes to take such a passive approach when Chelsea hosted Barcelona at Stamford Bridge in last season’s semi-finals. A 1-0 defeat left Chelsea requiring a win in the Nou Camp. and although they acquitted themselves well in a 1-1 draw, no one was buying Hayes’s claim afterwards that the “better team lost”. While Barcelona’s margin of victory was only one goal, Chelsea had not managed to convince that the gulf between the champions of Spain and England had narrowed.

Bonmati challenges for the ball against Erin Cuthbert in last season’s semi-final
Bonmati challenges for the ball against Erin Cuthbert in last season’s semi-final (Getty)

Chelsea will know how Barcelona’s threats will come from all angles. The elusive dribbling and finishing of Graham Hansen when gliding off the right wing punished Chelsea in last season’s semi-finals. Mariona Caldentey’s ability to drift inside from the opposite side offers Barcelona an advantage in central areas, and allows Rolfo, a winger for Sweden, to play in the same position but from full-back. The departures of Jenni Hermoso and Asisat Oshoala means Salma Paralluelo, the best young player at the World Cup, has been afforded chances to lead the line. Paralluelo really made her breakthrough in her debut Champions League campaign last year, but a 30-goal return this season resembles a further leap from the 20-year-old forward.

Naturally, Barcelona’s midfield remains the heart of a side that is defined by its technical excellence. Bonmati, the clear best player in the world over the past year, will threaten to undo Chelsea by exploiting the narrowest of gaps and the tightest of spaces on the edge of the box. Parti Guijarro, one of the Spanish players who made themselves unavailable from Spain’s World Cup squad, is the leader who dragged Barcelona from behind in last season’s final against Wolfsburg. Walsh, no stranger to English opposition, sets the tempo. Chelsea may look to focus on Bonmati, or Walsh, or Graham Hansen, only to leave room elsewhere.

But those are the risks that are required at this stage of the competition. FC Brann may have been dispatched 2-1 at home and 3-1 away by Barcelona in the quarter-finals, but the Norwegian side remained committed to a high-pressing, possession-based gameplan that required bravery from the perceived underdogs. Barcelona still had the individual quality to break through Brann’s organisation, but the champions knew they had been in a game. “Both legs of this tie have been complicated,” said Alexia Putellas, the two-time Ballon d’Or winner, who is gradually stepping up her involvement following a season that has been disrupted by injuries.

Chelsea, as perennial WSL champions, would like to be more than a complication at this stage and dictate the tie on their terms, but the previous few weeks and defeats in the two domestic cup competitions have highlighted the precariousness of their position. For now, until they return for one last night at Stamford Bridge under Hayes, they must surely avoid another if they are to keep their Champions League hopes alive – even if they have to suffer for it.

Catch the thrilling clash UEFA Women’s Champions League semi-final as Emma Hayes’s Chelsea face Spanish superstars Barcelona. Watch all the action unfold live and for free on DAZN. We may earn commission from some of the links in this article, but we never allow this to influence our content. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in