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Chelsea FC v Bayern Munich - UEFA Women’s Champions League Semi Final: Leg Two Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

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Chelsea FCW, growth, dominance, and taking the scenic route

Chelsea’s best season to date has also been one of the most grueling

Already, this has been Chelsea FCW’s best ever season. The Blues have been showered in confetti twice already, after winning the league and the league cup. So it’s also a fair bit of genuine irony – not the Alanis Morisette kind – that Chelsea have achieved it all the hard way.

Heading into the 2020-21 season Chelsea faced a lot of questions? What kind of form would Fran Kirby be in? How would the previous season’s top scorer, Bethany England (14 goals, 15 assists in 15 games) fit with Sam Kerr and now Pernille Harder? What about last season’s top assister, Guro Reiten (7 assists, 5 goals)? How do you fit all of the attackers on the pitch? What formation will Emma Hayes deploy? How will other summer signing Melanie Leupolz integrate in midfield? And, assuming all that could get sorted: how good can we really be?

At the start of the season, it was rough. Chelsea were squeaking by opponents and doing just enough to not drop points, but were far from the superstar-laden juggernaut the squad list suggested. Chelsea drew the season opener with Manchester United who didn’t yet have star recruits Tobin Heath or Christen Press in their lineup. Chelsea eeked by Birmingham 1-0, drew 1-1 with Arsenal, beat West Ham 3-2, and narrowly defeated Brighton 1-0.

Chelsea Women v Manchester United Women - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Catherine Ivill - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Of course the Blues had some impressive results, too – a 9-0 stomping of Bristol City, a 3-1 win over Manchester City, and a 4-0 win over Everton – but this meant it wasn’t easy to predict which Chelsea were going to show up. A streak of beating Arsenal and Tottenham in the Cup and City and Everton in the league with a 13-2 combined scoreline was followed by a run of Arsenal, West Ham, and Brighton in the league with a combined scoreline of 4-3.

Then, in February, Emma Hayes made six changes for a league match versus Brighton and Chelsea were handed our first (and only) loss, 2-1. This meant that Manchester City, whose only league loss was to Chelsea, were back right on our heels, and setting up the sides for a title-tilting showdown in the reverse fixture.

Chelsea managed to get a good result, 2-2, but afterward Emma Hayes gave a now infamous interview explaining how much she hated every bit of the second half. Without Chelsea captain and best center back Magdalena Eriksson, the Blues suffered to defend every City attack. When Lauren Hemp scored their equalizer in the 74th minute, they smelled blood, and the pressure grew with each second that ticked from the clock. As if that wasn’t enough, Chelsea goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger had to make the save of the season to preserve the draw. It’s a still-inexplicable reaction save from a glancing header that looks more and more unreal with every angle.

The Blues’ reward for that draw were two must-win matches in a three-match week that kicked off with a second leg of a Champions League semifinal in which Chelsea had to overcome a 2-1 first leg deficit. To our credit, Chelsea never made it interesting in the 4-1 win. Spurs were dispatched 2-0, then we hit Reading for five to secure the title on the final day of the season.

In the League Cup, Chelsea nearly had to play three London derbies to escape our group (won versus Arsenal and Spurs while a match with London City Lionesses was cancelled due to COVID-19). Then, in the quarterfinals, Chelsea had to battle Manchester City away at Academy Stadium, a venue in which we’d never won. Lauren Hemp scored in the 85th minute to put City ahead 2-1, and it looked like the Blues’ defense of the league cup would fail. But four minutes later, Niamh Charles, another summer signing, scored a beautiful volley from the top of the box, out of absolutely nothing. In extra time, Guro Reiten added a clever sliding finish off a rebound and ten minutes later Sophie Ingle’s left foot transformed into a wrecking ball and pummeled the ball into the net from thirty yards.

Throughout all of this, and with Emma Hayes constantly asking questions and implementing answers, Chelsea grew into something we weren’t necessarily expected to become in our first season with several new key players. Fran Kirby recovered to work herself into the best Fran Kirby we’ve ever seen, which was even further enhanced through a partnership with one of the best strikers in the world, Sam Kerr. Kerr is the only player on the pitch who can keep up when Kirby accelerates, and their osmotic understanding with each another has made their pairing the most ruthless attacking force in football.

To make life even more difficult for opponents, Emma Hayes implemented intense pressing and counter-pressing. Chelsea have become adept at using strategic positioning out of possession to funnel the ball where we want it to go, springing traps to win the ball back, and then playing direct as soon as it’s won. The Blues also have the ability to be patient, and that’s in large part due to the comfort of our center backs on the ball, particularly Chelsea captain Magdalena Eriksson. She is so calm and smooth on the ball that she frequently dribbles to the midway line without the opposition even really noticing. Eriksson’s ability not only shrinks the pitch, creating a higher probability that Chelsea’s direct attacking play can create a chance at goal with three or fewer passes, but it also gives the midfield and forwards time to locate spaces to move into off the ball.

If given time, Chelsea’s off-ball movement is impossible to cope with. We’ve scored goals from Eriksson completing a pass to a defensive midfielder camped in the final third; we’ve scored from the other center back, Millie Bright going over the top of the defense to drop a flat pass onto the foot of the left back in the final third; we’ve scored with Sam Kerr hitting a through ball to Fran Kirby from Chelsea’s own half; we’ve scored with backup right back Hannah Blundell curling a perfect pass into the path of now-backup fullback Niamh Charles; and all of the other permutations that have led to the trio of Kerr, Kirby and Harder racking up 59 goals and 27 assists in the WSL and Champions League combined.

And Chelsea would need everything we’d learned to make it to the Champions League Final — another journey in which we’ve taken the scenic route.

In the Round of 16, we faced Atlético Madrid, who finished second to Barcelona in the league last season, and were champions the year prior. Chelsea were still expected to win comfortably over two legs, until Sophie Ingle, who was filling in at center back for an injured Magda Eriksson, was shown a red card twelve minutes into the first leg. Ingle was off, Madrid had a penalty, Chelsea were down to ten and fresh out of center backs.

Chelsea FC Women v Atletico Madrid - Women’s UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Berger saved Madrid’s penalty, Chelsea scored one of our own via Maren Mjelde, Fran Kirby scored, and Berger saved another penalty – Chelsea won the match 2-0. The second leg was tense as well, with Mjelde scoring another penalty, Madrid missing another (this time beating Berger but smashing the bar), and Madrid’s stoppage time goal offered little more than a sarcastic relief that they could, indeed, put the ball in the net.

The quarterfinal versus Wolfsburg was somehow even weirder. The Wolves peppered Chelsea with twenty-two shots – by far the most that have been taken against Chelsea in any match this season – in what felt like a lopsided contest. Wolfsburg stars Ingrid Engen, Svenja Huth and Ewa Pajor routinely carved through Chelsea’s midfield and the left side of defense. The difference: clinical finishing by Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder giving the Blues a 2-1 win worthy of its own wing in the Smash & Grab Hall of Fame. Seriously.

Emma Hayes’ adjustments made the second leg far more comfortable, with the Blues winning 3-0. However, then it was onto Bayern Munich in the semifinal, who would beat Chelsea 2-1 in the first leg. Whereas Chelsea fortified the left defensive flank in the second leg against Wolfsburg, Hayes opted not to do the same in the opening match against Bayern, and Hanna Glas should’ve sent her flowers. Bayern’s right wingback was a constant menace through 1v1s and finding space to deliver crosses. Glas was responsible for both goals, hitting the cross that passed through Berger’s fingertips and onto Sydney Lohmann’s head for their first, and smashing a rocket from the top of the box for their second. Summing up Chelsea’s ineffectiveness on the day was the manner in which we nabbed our away goal – a deflection from a corner that bounced off of a completely unaware Melanie Leupolz before arcing high and dropping into the side of the goal.

Chelsea FC v Bayern Munich - UEFA Women’s Champions League Semi Final: Leg Two Photo by Steve Bardens - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

The second leg versus Bayern was as emotional as football matches get. Chelsea had to score, but any Bayern goal would immediately double our workload to progress. It all started according to the script, Chelsea went ahead in the tie (courtesy the away goal) in the tenth minute via a ridiculous two-on-four counterattack in which the two were Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr, with the former scoring. Twenty minutes later, Bayern midfielder Sarah Zadrazil hit the goal of the tournament to put them up 3-2 on aggregate, and with an away goal of their own. Chelsea needed two, and if Bayern managed to score again, well...

Just before halftime Ji So-yun smashed a free kick from the right side of the box into the wall but was first to react to the ricochet, recalibrate and send the ball rolling through bodies and into the far corner. It wasn’t until the 84th minute that Chelsea got the goal we needed to avoid extra time. Right back Jess Carter earned a free kick from a wide area in the attacking third. Carter, who had been taking set pieces all match and hitting high inswingers, many of which the keeper easily caught, stunned Bayern by hitting a flat and pacey cross that Pernille Harder soared to bury in the net.

Chelsea FC v Bayern Munich - UEFA Women’s Champions League Semi Final: Leg Two Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

Even after that elation, the next ten minutes were nearly unbearable. Goal line clearances from both Berger and Eriksson kept Chelsea’s dream of a Champions League final alive. In the fifth minute of stoppage time, an attempt to clear the ball after a corner resulted in the ball getting stuck between a cluster of Bayern and Chelsea midfielders. Bayern’s goalkeeper, who came up for the corner, was stuck trying to guess who was going to win possession, hoping she could get back in the box and be a hero, or at the very least be given an opportunity to jog back after Drew Spence was elbowed in the face during the scrum. Instead the referee played advantage, Erin Cuthbert gathered possession and sprayed the ball wide into space for Fran Kirby to run onto, steam toward goal, and side foot into an empty net.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Nothing can describe the weight of it all and how much more than victory the victory meant, other than the clip of Hayes nearly collapsing into a puddle of tears as Kirby’s shot rolled across the line.

The reason this can be Chelsea’s most historic team even after enduring some of the most grueling matches we’ve ever had is due to the quality of competition being the best it’s ever been across Europe. In the WSL, Manchester City collected the most points for a runner-up, Wolfsburg were in last season’s Champions League final, and while their star player is now at Chelsea, they are still just two points behind Bayern Munich in the Frauen Bundesliga with two matches to play. Both clubs are filled to the brim with star talent from around Europe, just like Chelsea.

Barcelona, our opponents tomorrow, still have five matches to play in their league season but were celebrating a league title the same weekend as Chelsea. While the disparity between the haves and have-nots in the Primera Iberdrola is even wider than in the WSL – ten of the league’s eighteen teams are sporting a negative goal differential, with eight of those figures in double digits and six over twenty – Barcelona have proven themselves mighty in all competitions.

Barcelona v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Women’s Champions League Semi Final: Leg Two Photo by Alex Caparros - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

In the league they have scored – get ready, none of the following is a typo – one-hundred and twenty-eight goals in twenty-six matches, and have conceded only five. Please read that again: 128 in 26. In the Champions League they defeated Manchester City 4-2 on aggregate, completely dismantling the WSL’s second best team in the first leg, 3-0. Their next opponents were PSG, who had finally fielded a team capable of knocking preeminent winners Lyon off their perch after five in a row and look set to beat them to the French league title as well.

None of that mattered. Though the aggregate score was 3-2, Barcelona suffocated PSG across both legs of their semifinal, allowing just four total shots on target. The Blaugrana saw to it that PSG enjoyed no more than 43% of possession, and kept them constantly guessing and off balance. Sometimes Barcelona would press and harass the central defense, preventing buildup play and creating opportunities to win possession high up the pitch and getting Caroline Graham Hansen, the best 1v1 winger in the world, in space. Sometimes they’d slow it down, spread out, and rely on the brilliant and fluid movement of Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí to shift defenses around until they spot a pattern they can manipulate. Sometimes they’d become the stuff of center backs’ nightmares and play their yin and yang attackers, Jenni Hermoso and Asisat Oshoala, at the same time.

Because of all they can do to destabilize an opposing team of seemingly any quality, Barcelona enhance all of the above with an assured confidence. They don’t panic. If something isn’t working, they shapeshift and try something else, and with minimal-to-zero drop-off in quality. Make no mistake, the best team Chelsea will have ever faced awaits them in Sunday’s Women’s Champions League Final.

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