Test for Hayes’s Chelsea is bouncing back from Barcelona trouncing
Emma Hayes and her Chelsea team had long since trudged back down the tunnel before the celebrations had begun, before half the net they had failed to protect was cut down, rolled up and used as a skipping rope and before the Barcelona manager, Lluís Cortés, walked across an empty pitch in the dark, soft drink in hand and on FaceTime.
But while the wounds of Sunday night’s devastating 4-0 defeat in the Champions League final will no doubt remain raw for some time, Hayes’s players would do well to look at the scenes at the Gamla Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg after their departure. They should study the delight on the faces of the Barcelona players and their relief, belief and euphoria at lifting a first Champions League and contrast that to devastation wreaked by a similarly humiliating defeat just two years ago, a 4-1 humbling by Lyon.
Like Chelsea, Barcelona found themselves 4-0 down before half-time, thanks to a hat-trick from Ada Hegerberg, but have now fulfilled their manager’s promise to “work a lot to become European champions”. Now Chelsea have to adopt that mentality and build on the experience they have picked up along the way.
Hayes tweeted on Monday, alongside pictures of banners for her son Harry’s third birthday and a row of medals hanging from her kitchen light fitting, that this was a “first attempt at learning”. That is exactly how these players and the people around them have to view this, as a low that will make the high, should they return, all the sweeter.
In that sense, the path forward has already been partly trodden just by reaching the final and suffering such a catastrophic defeat. Seven of Barcelona’s starting XI in Gothenburg had sunk to the grass in despair in 2019. Two who came off the bench were also witness to Hegerberg’s dominant display.
“Their experience counted,” Hayes reflected after a first-minute own goal and another three inside 36 minutes, from the midfielders Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí and the Norwegian forward Caroline Graham Hansen, wrecked her dream of a quadruple. “They were exceptional in both boxes. It’s one of them games where it felt like everything fell to them. I didn’t sense nerves but, clearly, they were there. That’s something I won’t know until I sit down with everyone. I was really looking forward to the game but some of these players haven’t played in this arena before and it showed.”
Nerves are natural, but it is how you handle them that matters. Chelsea have built one of the finest forward lines in the world, steeped in experience. But the rawness of Chelsea’s full-backs Niamh Charles and Jess Carter, until this stage superb when filling in for the injured Maren Mjelde and less-favoured Jonna Andersson, was brutally exposed by the finest wingers in European football.
It is an area Hayes will want to, at the very least, add depth to if not swing the axe more brutally. How those young players respond to this defeat will surely determine whether they remain in the fold. Overrun in the middle, the manager will also need to reflect on how well the trio of Ji So-yun, Melanie Leupolz and Sophie Ingle coped against the slick and rapid passing game of Barça and the options available in those areas on the bench.
Chelsea are a talented team, WSL champions and league cup winners, and are now the second best team in Europe. Barcelona are just a few steps ahead on their journey. They have a group of players who have been working together towards this goal for a longer period of time and the understanding they have built as a result was evident on Sunday evening.
Alongside considerations over personnel, Hayes will already – well, perhaps once Harry’s birthday is out of the way – be attempting to mastermind a system that is capable of finding a way through the Catalan wall and beating their possession-laden game. This is the bit she loves, the tactical part, and getting it right will be one of the biggest sporting challenges of her career.