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Chelsea produce the unthinkable as Emma Hayes writes famous chapter into farewell story

Barcelona 0-1 Chelsea: Erin Cuthbert’s goal gives the English side the advantage in the Women’s Champions League semi-finals as they stunned the holders away from home

Jamie Braidwood
Saturday 20 April 2024 16:24 BST
Chelsea match-winner Erin Cuthbert sends message to fans after historic result

As the ball fell to Alexia Putellas, four yards out and in the ninth minute of additional time at the Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium, there was already enough evidence to show that this was a day for the unexpected. In any other game, Putellas would have scored and Barcelona would have found a way through – instead, the two-time Ballon d’Or winner skewed her shot and the Women’s Champions League holders suffered their first home defeat in five years. Even more remarkably, as Putellas sliced wide, a team who had scored 164 goals in all competitions this season were yet to land a shot on target.

Nor would they. Somehow, Chelsea and Emma Hayes produced the unthinkable. The English champions looked to survive and stay in the tie, but Erin Cuthbert’s goal and a first-ever victory against the all-conquering Barcelona ensures Chelsea will take a 1-0 lead back to Stamford Bridge for next week’s semi-final second leg. Avoid defeat there, and Hayes will end her 12-year Chelsea reign in Bilbao and with a final shot at the only trophy that has eluded her.

This result ensures the final weeks of her time at Chelsea have produced another famous day in the club’s history. Chelsea were outstanding and Barcelona, a team who won every trophy there was to win last season, failed to score for the first time in almost two years. Hannah Hampton did not have a save to make; the Chelsea goalkeeper’s efforts in slowing the game down brought jeers and whistles from the stunned home crowd as Barcelona and their superstars panicked and suffered the rarest of defeats.

Cuthbert and her teammates applaud the away fans in Barcelona after Chelsea’s win
Cuthbert and her teammates applaud the away fans in Barcelona after Chelsea’s win (Getty)

Hampton’s historic clean sheet was a testament to the performances in front of her. There were incredible displays all over the pitch, each player giving everything for Hayes in this quest to win a first Champions League title. It can feel unfair to pick out individuals on days like these but two, in particular, stood out. Jess Carter and Niamh Charles were two of the Chelsea players who started in the Gothenburg final against Barcelona three years ago and conceded four goals by the 39th minute; their considerable improvement in the time since is never more apparent than when they face Barcelona and must deal with the individual duels that the Catalan side so often like to exploit.

Carter, at the heart of the Chelsea defence, was magnificent, the player of the match as she shut down the Spain star Salma Paralluelo, a forward with 30 goals to her name this season. Caroline Graham Hansen, who scored in both legs as Barcelona beat Chelsea in last season’s semi-finals, was similarly kept quiet by a brilliant Charles. Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, both signed for these occasions, completed a back four that held on for a famous result, one that could see captain Millie Bright return to bolster it next week. Lawrence, signed from PSG last summer, was particularly impressive and this was her finest performance yet for Chelsea.

Jess Carter lead Chelsea’s defensive display as they shut out Barcelona
Jess Carter lead Chelsea’s defensive display as they shut out Barcelona (Getty)

You could say the same about Mayra Ramirez. The January signing, and a familiar opponent of Barcelona having arrived from Levante, put in a tireless display at the point of the attack, chasing lost causes, holding up possession, and bringing others into play. The Colombian gave Chelsea a physical presence that allowed the Blues to grow into the game, growing in confidence as she started to keep hold of the ball when played down the channels. Chelsea were passive and comprehensively outplayed when they hosted Barcelona in the first leg of last season’s semi-final. This time, the Londoners pushed higher and took more chances. They executed their gameplan to perfection.

The visitors would have prepared to see little of the ball and survive long spells of pressure but Hayes’s side limited Barcelona to few chances and, unbelievably, not even a shot on target. Chelsea survived calls for a penalty in the second half when Patri Guijarro’s shot struck Buchanan’s arm: the contact was clear but Chelsea were handed a reprieve when VAR intervened and Stephanie Frappart ruled that Paralluelo was interfering with play from an offside position. It was a subjective call but one that fell in Chelsea’s favour. That said, Hayes would have been asking where VAR went when Ramirez was brought down in the box moments later after defender Irene Paredes kicked the Chelsea striker on the thigh.

Hayes and Chelsea will take a 1-0 lead back to Stamford Bridge
Hayes and Chelsea will take a 1-0 lead back to Stamford Bridge (Getty)

By then, Chelsea were arguably the better side. After surviving Barcelona’s early pressure, they started to grow into the game. Lauren James, passed fit after being a pre-match doubt, made her first start against Barcelona after being used off the bench in last season’s semi-finals. The forward’s languid ability to exert complete control over every dribble allowed Chelsea to slow the game down when they needed to.

With it, Chelsea worked themselves into the semi-final. So when, five minutes before the interval, Sjoeke Nusken controlled in the penalty area and turned to open up a shot at goal, it felt as if Chelsea’s pressure was building. Nusken funnelled the ball wide to Cuthbert, who then shifted it out of her feet and floated a perfect finish past Cata Coll and into the top corner.

If Chelsea scoring the opening goal was a shock, the odds on Curtbert’s strike being the winner felt remote. Yet the Barcelona response never quite arrived and Chelsea managed the game expertly in the second half, much to the growing frustration of the home support. Ramirez, ploughing away on her own, almost plundered a second on the break as she held off Patri but fired over.

Chelsea only had to survive two more moments, neither of which required Hampton’s intervention. The first came as Paralluelo peeled away at the back post but sliced wide on the volley, then when the ball broke to Putellas with seconds remaining. Chelsea, though, held on to take a historic victory into the second leg where another seismic performance will be required to finish the job.

Catch the thrilling Uefa Women’s Champions League semi-final second leg 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

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