Barcelona hold off Chelsea to reach third straight Women’s Champions League final

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Nou Camp was rocking by the end, relieved they could finally get the party started. Barcelona are through to their third Women’s Champions League final in a row, their fourth in five seasons, but Chelsea had made them hang on until the final moment. Emma Hayes wanted her side to remain in the tie, and Chelsea managed to do so until the last whistle. They completed one half of their sizable task and stopped Barcelona from winning at home. Accomplishing the other, knocking Barcelona out with a win in the Nou Camp, was beyond them.

But Chelsea can hold their heads high. As the majority of the 72,262 clapped in unison at full time, and the Barcelona players saluted the sea of red, blue and yellow, Hayes gathered her players in the centre of the vast expanse. They had given everything; they had suffered, survived, and allowed Hayes to finally gambled as Lauren James and Pernille Harder were brought on, in what was Chelsea’s final assault. Barcelona were nervous and Chelsea felt it. Just one chance would have done it, but nothing fell.

Perhaps Chelsea could have acted sooner but they first needed to earn the right to twist. The scale of the challenge presented to Chelsea was made clear by the Nou Camp itself - in its enormity, the three steeping tiers, the colour and fanfare outside the ground and in. Barcelona had won all five games here in the Champions League, scoring 24 goals. They were on a run of 18 home wins in a row in Europe. Chelsea managed to limit Barcelona to a one-goal lead after the first leg at Stamford Bridge, and it still left them requiring a miracle to advance.

“Coming into the tie, with 72,000 fans here, we knew it wouldn’t be easy but, by not conceding early, we gave ourselves a chance to build,” Hayes said. Guro Reiten’s equaliser on the night, which came moments after Caroline Graham Hansen had doubled Barcelona’s lead in the tie, restored hope and the platform Chelsea had worked so hard for. Chelsea needed to be brave, as well as perfect. “We grew into the game, we got more aggressive and we created some good chances.” Hayes added. “It wasn’t quite enough and I’m stood here now just absolutely gutted.”

Hayes offered a tweak, with Maren Mjelde stepping out of defence when Chelsea looked to build possession, while they pressed higher than they did at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were more settled and kept the ball better than they managed in the first leg, or at any stage of their quarter-final against holders Lyon. “I can’t ask any more of our players. I said to them at the end that they should all be proud to be Chelsea, because the better team lost tonight,” Hayes argued.

But Barcelona gave Chelsea constant reminders of the precariousness of their position, Graham Hansen and the outstanding Aitana Bonmati the dangers who could have taken the tie away at any moment. Chelsea’s mission was to stay in the game, but then the time came where they needed to start opening up. Chelsea had six players attacking the Barcelona box in the move before the opening goal. Sam Kerr was offside and from the free kick Barcelona split Chelsea open, Mariona Caldentey’s touch took Melanie Leupolz and Mjelde out of the game, Bonmati surged clear and slipped in Graham Hansen, who finished off the counter-attack.

Barcelona will face either Wolfsburg or Arsenal in the final (Getty Images)
Barcelona will face either Wolfsburg or Arsenal in the final (Getty Images)

It was clinical, devastating, but those were the risks that Chelsea needed to start taking. “I want more in terms of the result but I can’t ask for more in terms of effort and heart,” said Hayes. “The girls gave everything and executed everything we asked for in terms of a game plan. There’s plenty of learnings we can take, especially from the first leg, but there’s also so many things to take heart from. It’s really gutting and we have to deal with the disappointment, learn from it and grow.”

Chelsea’s response was immediate. Erin Cuthbert challenged Caldentey and there was suddenly space to hit Kerr, who had been starved for so long. Leupolz found the ball and although Sandro Panos denied what was Chelsea’s first shot of the match, Reiten tucked away the rebound. It was another big-game goal from the Norway international and the surprise from Hayes was that she was one of those taken off when James and Harder were brought on.

As Chelsea levelled, you could understand what Hayes wanted to do, and even then Barcelona could have been out of sight by the break. Graham Hansen, who scored a stunning winner inside four minutes last week, was the difference of the tie. Chelsea again tried to double up on Graham Hansen, but she had the beating of anyone and everyone.

Chelsea had given everything to get through, and then they made Barcelona hang on. Two years ago in Gothenburg in 2021, they had been blown apart after half an hour, conceding four goals. They weren’t beaten by Barcelona tonight, far from it, but if that final step remains out of reach - a breakthrough in the Champions League does too.