Chelsea faced unfamiliar opposition managed by a very familiar face last night in the Women’s Champions League group stage, and while the game was often on a knife’s edge, Chelsea’s quality shone through as we came away victorious against (former Arsenal FCW manager) Joe Montemurro’s Juventus — our first competitive match ever against the Italian champions.
Pernille Harder set up the first goal and scored the second to earn maximum points on the road. The 2-1 win leaves Chelsea level on points with Wolfsburg at the top of the group, but second on head-to-head away goals record.
It’s still early, with just two of six group games player, but that’s a good place to be even if the performances have been a bit flawed.
Having rotated heavily for the previous game against Leicester City, Emma Hayes brought her heavy hitters back into the fold. Chelsea lined up with a front three of Harder, Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby, supported in midfield by Melanie Leupolz and Ji So-yun, with Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert in wingback positions and a back three of Madga Eriksson, Jess Carter and Millie Bright. Ann-Katrin Berger took her usual spot between the sticks.
The game started rather testily with both sides unsure of what to expect. Kirby and Harder were searching for space within and outside the block to make things happen. Chelsea dominated possession but Juve were happy to play on the counter as our tempo was not fast enough to force them to commit and leave their positions within the block. This meant a lot of painfully familiar, if fairly comfortable and patient U-shaped passing.
While Ji and Kirby had quiet outings, Harder was able to find space quite a few times outside of the block, as she’d pick the ball up wide left and dribble into the box to shoot or create. Juventus’ defense were oddly passive in these situations.
And it was this pattern of play that rewarded Chelsea with the opener. Harder received the ball on the left touchline, looked up and played a delightful switch to Erin Cuthbert, whose wonderful touch to cut inside and finish broke the deadlock — helped along by Juventus choosing to do nothing but watch Cuthbert surge into their box and finish.
At the other end of the pitch, things were less comfortable. Lina Hurtig’s height was immediately obvious, but we were quickly made aware of her pace as she ran behind Cuthbert and Bright, forcing Carter to sprint back and make crucial interventions a couple of times. Valentina Cernoia was also a constant thorn in our side, as she won a lot of fouls and was able to get away from Ji and Leupolz regularly in midfield. This threat probably played heavily on the minds of Bright and Eriksson as they kept their passing very safe, choosing to go wide rather than into central areas and not pushing forward with the ball to create numerical superiority in the half-spaces.
When Juventus were able to push Chelsea back into our own half, they found a lot of joy with crosses from deep aimed at the far post. Cuthbert and Reiten, for all their attacking verve, are vulnerable in this area, and none of the Chelsea center backs were able to position themselves well to deal with these crosses either. They also didn’t help themselves with weak and poorly directed clearances handing the ball straight back to Juve with not much opportunity to reset our shape.
The leveler came from this exact situation. Bright cleared poorly, straight back to Juve’s midfield, who under no pressure found the left back, Lisa Boattin, also under no pressure. Boattin then put in a cross to the far post and winger Barbara Bonansea surged past Reiten to finish. With the scores now level, Juventus grew in confidence and had more forays forward, with the half-time whistle a welcome reprieve.
Emma Hayes chose not to panic and keep faith in her attackers and the 3-4-3 formation, despite the looming threat of a revitalized Juventus in the second half. That largely paid off with Chelsea creating some better chances and keeping Juventus at bay — but Chelsea needed to win this game. So on came Jessie Fleming for Cuthbert and Chelsea went to a 4-3-3 shape with Ji flanked by Fleming and Leupolz in midfield, and Carter and Reiten (!) playing as the full backs.
Fleming was immediately into the action, finding spaces in similar situations as Harder, outside of the block wide right. She made the ball stick in the final third and tried to knit some moves together. It was a much needed change as Ji and Leupolz alone were finding it hard to up the tempo. Bright and Eriksson also looked far more comfortable in a back-four as well, and they started finding better passes into forward areas. Eriksson in particular was very good in this phase of play.
The eventual winner came from a counter-attacking opportunity. After a series of fouls and throw-ins forced Chelsea deep, Ji intercepted a poor throw-in. Harder pounced on this and played to Kerr, who laid it back to Fleming. Juve closed down, but Ji came away with the ball from the tussle to find Harder in space behind the right-back. She in turn found Kerr who exchanged passes with Kirby to get into the box. It was her blocked shot that fell into the path of an expectant Pernille Harder who wasn’t going to miss from there.
With the lead now re-established, Hayes brought on Ingle to replace Ji in the No.6 role and Chelsea now controlled the game. However, Juventus were able to create some chaos down the right with both Reiten and substitute Jonna Andersson struggling to contain substitute Agnese Bonfantini. But Juve were not able to turn that danger into actual chances, and while it wasn’t exactly a breeze, Chelsea didn’t come unstuck and managed the game well enough to earn all three points.
The 3-4-3 formation is proving to be a double-edged sword. The increased freedom for the front three alongside the quality crossing of Cuthbert and Reiten is irresistible. However, the back three are having a tough time. Carter and Bright are struggling to impose themselves on the game, and the unit as a whole look very uncomfortable.
Chelsea’s failure to address the very real needs in defense over the summer is going to become more and more apparent with every mistake. Aniek Nouwen is young and promising and a fit and firing Maren Mjelde would solve a lot of problems, but neither’s quite ready to make this back-three work. I hope Hayes finds some solutions soon, either on the pitch, or in the transfer market.
Until then, we should enjoy Pernille Harder’s excellent run of form and crucial contributions. She is stepping up in the big games and scoring crucial late equalizers and winners. Long may that continue.