Chelsea can claim crowning Women’s Champions League victory in the house that Emma Hayes built

It was all in the plan, it seemed. As Chelsea took to Stamford Bridge for the first time under Emma Hayes, the club’s then chair Bruce Buck declared that, in one sense, the “mission has been accomplished”. There were under 4,000 in attendance as Chelsea were beaten 3-0 by Wolfsburg, but the historic occasion of Chelsea’s women’s team playing at Stamford Bridge was the encapsulation of Hayes’s vision. “Emma explained what she wanted to build here,” Buck wrote in the match programme seven years ago. “But I know Emma will not want the journey to end here.” Nor did it.

But now there is an end, of sorts, as Chelsea return to the house that Hayes built for the second leg of their Women’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. Hayes’s last match at Stamford Bridge could not have been scripted better: with a slender 1-0 lead to protect against the best team in the world, the opportunity to knock out the holders and reach the Bilbao final, and the biggest ever attendance for a women’s game at Stamford Bridge. The pursuit of a first Champions League title and the dream end to Hayes’s final season at Chelsea has led to, with a day to go, the chance of a first sellout in the club’s history.

Only Hayes will know if her dreams of the future stretched as far when she arrived at Chelsea in 2012. Aside from a Champions League final, or the six Women’s Super League titles and five FA Cups, it would in many ways be the crowning achievement of Hayes’s 12 years at the club, the impossible transformed into the reality. Theirs is a story that has bridged eras, where the rapid growth of the sport means the celebration of an attendance such as 4,000 now feels unthinkable, and which could yet end with its most significant chapter yet.

Hayes bids farewell to Stamford Bridge as Chelsea host Barcelona (Getty Images)
Hayes bids farewell to Stamford Bridge as Chelsea host Barcelona (Getty Images)

And so to the arrival of Barcelona for the second time in as many seasons. Chelsea are prepared for a response after Barcelona were stunned and humbled, suffering their first defeat of the season in the first leg last week. Hayes’s side executed their defensive gameplan to perfection and Erin Cuthbert’s goal secured a famous win at the Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium. There is a score to settle: Barcelona have vowed to raise their game and there is revenge to claim, yet the European champions will be up against more than an organised defence and a disciplined unit, given the emotion of Hayes’s final weeks in charge.

The chance to finally win the Champions League heightens the narrative, in a clash that should have much more tension and edginess than last season’s semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge. Then, the occasion was not a contest, and Chelsea’s passiveness as much as Barcelona’s dominance meant the fixture struggled to live up to its billing. That Barcelona’s return comes in the second leg – and with Chelsea having a lead to defend – demands a hostile atmosphere to fuel the evening and help Hayes’s side over the line. Last season’s late comeback and quarter-final victory over holders Lyon can be their inspiration.

There is more recent motivation too. Chelsea were brilliant last week, becoming the first team to beat Barcelona away from home in five years. A defensive masterclass stifled the holders, limiting the Spanish side to few chances, while an aggressive and intense approach disrupted the European champions and their midfield passing. Barcelona and their superstars were evidently rattled, with the Ballon d’Or holder Aitana Bonmati accusing Chelsea of “playing dirty” and causing “interruptions” in the game. Bonmati claimed Barcelona had warned the referee that Chelsea would look to slow play down, and yet they succeeded.

Hayes’s gameplan worked in Barcelona as Chelsea claimed a 1-0 win (Getty)
Hayes’s gameplan worked in Barcelona as Chelsea claimed a 1-0 win (Getty)

Such a reaction would have been music to Chelsea’s ears, evidence beyond the monumental scoreline that their approach had been a successful one. Hayes was quick to point out that the tie was only at half-time and insisted Chelsea could have had more. There was pride in celebrating Chelsea’s win at Barcelona, but Hayes was rather more regretful that Mayra Ramirez had not doubled Chelsea’s lead on the counter-attack after the hosts pushed further numbers forward in search of an equaliser.

Chelsea will have to do more than just defend as Barcelona look to keep their Champions League defence alive. Barcelona have vowed to bring “another level” into the second leg and as they seek the comeback, or the “remontada”. It would be an extraordinary effort from Chelsea to shut out the star-studded cast of Bonmati, Caroline Graham Hansen, Fridolina Rolfo, Salma Paralluelo and Alexia Putellas for a second game in a row. “Barcelona are gonna come for us, world-class players won’t accept defeat,” Hayes warned last week, moments after full-time.

Chelsea have been preparing for this and, for them, it’s personal too. That final in Gothenburg three years ago denied Chelsea and Hayes a first Champions League, destroyed by Barcelona in a first-half onslaught. This is the closest they’ve been to the Champions League final since and, ultimately, a first-ever victory over Barcelona would count for nothing if they don’t complete the job and reach the final as well. The quadruple is long gone but the Champions League dream is still alive. For Chelsea and Hayes, this would be their greatest victory of all.

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