Champions League football returned to Kingsmeadow last night with a bang. In a match that had everything – from red cards to penalty saves – Chelsea hosted Atlético Madrid in a testing Round of 16 fixture.
Dubbed by many as the tie of the round, the Spaniards arrived with a strong record against English teams, having knocked out Manchester City in the last two editions of the competition. They have, however, been experiencing topsy turvy form domestically and, as of kick off yesterday, sat fourth in the Primera División.
Chelsea, on the other hand, came into the fixture on the back of a strong run of form that sees them sit top of the Barclays FAWSL. Refreshed after a two-week international break, Fran Kirby and Millie Bright, both out of action for the Lionesses, were named fit. However, the Blues were dealt a blow earlier with the omnipresent Magdalena Eriksson picking up an injury in training. This meant a reshuffle for Emma Hayes, moving Sophie Ingle back into the central defensive role while handing starts to her four formidable attacking players – Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby, Beth England and Pernille Harder.
The opening stages were fairly even with both sides finding their feet. Atlético had some joy down the flanks, with the pace of Rasheedat Ajibade causing problems. It was the hosts, however, who should have taken the lead when a beautifully weighted pass from Bright in defence found Ji So Yun. Unmarked in the area, she had the whole goal to aim at but fired wide. You don’t often see the South Korean lose her temper, but she was visibly annoyed with herself.
In the 11th minute, the game took a dramatic turn. With Ajibade splitting the Chelsea defence, she bore down on goal at speed only to be tripped by a desperate Ingle. It was a seemingly innocuous tangle of legs, but the defender had to walk by the letter of the law, and the hosts suddenly found themselves down to ten players with a penalty to face.
In times of crisis, you need your leaders to stand up. None more so for Chelsea than goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger, who seemed to take the challenge in her stride. Facing down Deyna Castellanos, she picked the right way keep out the spot kick.
The loss of a player meant Hayes had some tough decisions to make. You had to feel for Beth England, who was sacrificed up front for Niamh Charles to come in at right back. On paper, it may have seen like a surprising decision with the likes of Hannah Blundell on the bench, but it illustrated the strides the England youngster has made under the Chelsea coach this season.
In hindsight, Atlético may have preferred it if the numbers had stayed even as they struggled against Chelsea’s ten. It was the hosts who bided their time and stayed patient, creating opportunities in the moments they pushed forward. The best fell to Harder after a marauding run from Bright, but she couldn’t put her shot past Hedvig Lindahl.
The Blues’ resilience paid early in the second half and they took the lead in the 58th minute. Kerr went on one of her surging runs and Aissatou Tounkara could not resist the temptation of challenging in the box. She connected with the player rather than the ball and Maren Mjelde stepped up to dispatch the subsequent penalty with aplomb.
Six minutes later, they doubled their lead. The magical Fran Kirby glided through the midfield on a mazy run but ended up hitting the post with her shot. She got her rewards, however, as the move continued with Kerr setting her up to send it home.
Madrid huffed and puffed as they pushed to get back into the game, rarely creating clear cut chances. They did get their opportunity when Berger brought down Ludmila in the area. Once again, however, the German was equal to the task, saving Merel Van Dongen’s spot kick, and taking an accidental knee to the head for her troubles. It was a world class performance from the Chelsea keeper that didn’t go unnoticed from her manager: “Listen, goalkeepers don’t get spoken about enough. I thought her all round performance was outstanding and everybody that has played against or with her will tell you – in fact the stats back it up – she’s the best shot stopper in the league. Her ability from penalties is second to none.”
It is in times of adversity that you see a squad’s true character. Chelsea showed all of their calibre and character as they secured a 2-0 victory against the odds – “Nothing’s a straight line. You go into games, you prepare for the opponent, and then it’s thrown out the window because situations happen. Being able to adapt, or for this team to find solutions, hasn’t just happened. We’ve been working together for a long time.”
There are many more hurdles to come in this competition but Chelsea are a side you’d be ill-advised to bet against. As Emma Hayes said to the press post-match, “I think going into these games, I expect a lot from this team. I expect us to win, and I still expect us to win it with 10 players.” She is not the only one.