Women’s club football in England has never had a couple of days like it.
On Wednesday and Thursday, London played host to two Champions League quarter-final deciders with very different tasks for Arsenal and Chelsea. First, Jonas Eidevall’s Arsenal were 1-0 down from their first leg away at Bayern Munich, while Emma Hayes’ Chelsea had brought a 1-0 lead back from Lyon.
And therefore, amid all the more intricate tactical plans — the shapes, the patterns of movement, the set-piece routines — the main factor here was simple. Arsenal needed to set the tone, make the running and defeat Bayern by two clear goals on the night, while Chelsea had a license to sit deeper and break sporadically.
The defining feature of Arsenal’s game plan in their eventual 2-0 win was their pressing, which repeatedly caused Bayern problems. Stina Blackstenius and Frida Maanum, the No 9 and No 10 in Eidevall’s 4-2-3-1, were the two goalscorers; Maanum with a magnificent long-range effort into the top corner, Blackstenius with a point-blank header.
But those two were also charged with starting Arsenal’s press. Caitlin Foord and Victoria Pelova pushed forward aggressively down the flanks to join them, hunting in packs, forcing Bayern into backward passes to their goalkeeper.
The visitors kept on playing out from the back, and they kept on losing the ball.
Arsenal won tackles to regain possession around the Bayern box, and when the Germans’ defenders tried forward passes, they were intercepted by the midfield duo of Lia Walti and Leah Williamson. Bayern never went long just to relieve this pressure and give themselves time to breathe.
On 19 minutes, the opening goal arrived in predictable fashion. Arsenal pressed their guests into a corner with four players, and a stray Bayern pass fell to Walti. She played directly forward to Blackstenius, who knocked it back for Williamson, whose flick teed up Maanum’s glorious strike. After that, Arsenal piled on the pressure, and Blackstenius made it 2-0 seven minutes later. She could have had a first-half hat-trick.
Both managers said post-match that Arsenal’s pressing was the key factor on the night.
“We did something today that we normally don’t do,” rued Bayern’s Alexander Strauss. “We gave away the ball too easily and the first goal… we had a couple of warnings signs before. It’s a little disappointing that we couldn’t adjust to the situation. They pressed us high with four players in their first line, and their defence was on the halfway line. We could have pushed them backwards if we went a bit longer and more direct.
“Then we gave away the ball, and it was a fantastic goal from Frida Maanum, and it’s 1-0.”
Arsenal counterpart Eidevall agreed: “The first goal is one example of (our good pressing). It’s also a great strike from Frida (so) it’s not just down to pressing. But without pressing, we don’t get the ball in the first place.
“You have to remember that when we got our pressing right against Chelsea, it looked similar. I don’t read a lot of newspapers but someone I read is the Chelsea captain Magdalena Eriksson. She has a lot of sound ideas. Both as an athlete and a person, I respect her a lot.
“Someone sent me what she’d written before the quarter-finals. She was talking about what it felt like to play against our pressure, and if that’s what it feels like, then that’s great: that’s what we want to try and achieve. And that’s what was coming to Bayern tonight. We still need to make things even better, but it’s a real strength of ours, the pressing game.”
Eidevall was referring to Eriksson’s recent article in the UK’s i newspaper.
“What impresses me about Arsenal is the aggression and intensity across the whole team,” she wrote. “They have 11 players who are all on the same page, defending together and running for each other really aggressively. They’ve always had good ball-players but have added an aggressive high press to their possession game, and it’s extremely hard to get out of it.”
So would Eriksson’s Chelsea side do the same, 24 hours later? Would they take the game to Lyon? Would they produce a performance as dominant as Arsenal’s?
No, no and no.
They didn’t have to, of course. But Chelsea started nervily, and had to withstand serious pressure in the opening stages. Without the injured Millie Bright, their best penalty-box defender, they struggled to cope with crosses, particularly those from Lyon right-winger Delphine Cascarino. Chelsea dropped off more and more, much to Hayes’ annoyance. She kept shouting, “Don’t get deep!” at her defenders.
Hayes deployed Lauren James up front, alongside Sam Kerr. “We went to 4-4-2 with Lauren down the middle with Sam, because we knew we could get them in the transitions,” she explained afterwards. “I don’t think my team’s been full of confidence playing out from the back, so I decided not to do it. I think it was the right decision.”
In keeping with some other big games in recent weeks, Chelsea threatened mainly when playing directly, sometimes to James in the right channel, and sometimes longer to Kerr in behind, when Lyon’s goalkeeper Christiane Endler was forced to sweep on two occasions.
Chelsea’s best chance in the game came after 15 minutes when James played Kerr in for a one-on-one. Kerr dinked the ball, but only against the head of Endler.
Lyon were the better side, without ever really playing well. They did at least offer quality from their bench, and Ada Hegerberg was introduced at half-time to offer a focal point. Centre-back Vanessa Gilles scored a scruffy goal on 77 minutes to make it 1-1 on aggregate, and then substitute Sara Dabritz seemed to have got the tie’s winner early in the second half of extra time.
Meanwhile, an already injury-hit Chelsea side suffered further setbacks. Melanie Leupolz departed with a nasty head injury, then right-back Eve Perisset and central midfielder Erin Cuthbert followed after being struck by muscle problems. Hayes introduced fresh legs, but Chelsea had other issues.
Eriksson, once unflappable at the back for Chelsea, was guilty of several mistakes over the 120 minutes — first a poor clearance, then being caught dawdling on the ball in her own box and later unable to stop the cross that for several minutes appeared to be the assist on Lyon’s winner.
By extra time, Chelsea were out on their feet and out of ideas. James had repeatedly made poor decisions, taking too many touches on the ball and running down blind alleys, and did just that with Chelsea’s last attack. Yet somehow, it won a penalty, thanks to the first-ever VAR overturn in Chelsea Women’s history. Lyon were aghast.
The penalty itself was equally unusual; as time was extended to allow it to be taken, referee Ivana Martincic informed the players that it was literally the last kick of the game. No rebounds would be allowed. Both sets of players, having been jostling for position on the edge of the D, just walked away and prayed.
Maren Mjelde converted, which meant there were another 10 penalties to come, starting immediately. And Chelsea eventually triumphed in the shootout thanks to two saves by Ann-Katrin Berger. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The last time Chelsea reached this stage of this competition, two years ago, Berger made two penalty saves in normal time against Atletico Madrid in the round of 16.
The scenes at full-time were tremendous: Hayes’ players running in every direction, Madness’ One Step Beyond playing around the ground, as is Chelsea tradition, the players reluctant to leave the pitch.
Chelsea Women have played games at Stamford Bridge before, but they’ve never had a moment like this at the club’s main stadium.
The irony in all this, of course, was that the two English quarter-finalists had somehow reversed their roles. Arsenal, the side who were chasing the tie at the start of the night, were entirely comfortable. Chelsea, who were in control of their tie at the midway point, required the illogical comeback.
Hayes could barely find the words to summarise Chelsea’s win, but went out of her way to praise what Arsenal achieved the night before. “I’m so happy both English teams are through,” she said. “What a performance by Arsenal. I’m so happy for them.”
These victories could be transformative for the Women’s Champions League — in London, at least. The Emirates and Stamford Bridge were both roughly one-third full for these thrilling encounters. But with all four semi-finals matches scheduled for either weekend or Bank Holiday dates in a month’s time, more convenient for families, those stadia might be packed.
Both English sides probably start as underdogs in the semi-finals, particularly considering Arsenal were eliminated by their opponents Wolfsburg 3-1 on aggregate at this stage of this competition last year, and Chelsea face Barcelona, who humbled them 4-0 in the Champions League final two years ago.
Then again, if Arsenal can see off Bayern, maybe they can also defeat the side who are a point behind them in the Frauen-Bundesliga, having lost to Bayern at the weekend. And if Chelsea can beat Lyon, maybe they can beat the team the French side surprised to win 3-1 in last year’s final.
Somehow, the possibility of an all-WSL final in the Dutch city of Eindhoven on Saturday, June 3 is still alive.
With the confidence from these two triumphs, Arsenal and Chelsea fans might be booking those Eurostar tickets already.
(Photos in top image: Julian Finney – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images; Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
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