Barcelona advance to a fourth straight Champions League final; Chelsea heartbroken

LONDON — Reigning champions Barcelona will head to a fourth straight UEFA Women’s Champions League final as they overcame a 1-0 deficit from their semifinal first leg to beat 10-woman Chelsea 2-0 at a sold-out Stamford Bridge.

Goals from Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí and Fridolina Rolfö saw the Blaugrana get the needed result as they look to defend their crown in Bilbao as they await the winner of the other semifinal between Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain.

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As for the Blues, Emma Hayes will depart the club without being able to win the one trophy that was left to her to win as she embarks on taking charge of the United States women’s national team.

Sophie Lawson and Emily Keogh were at the Bridge to break down what that result means for both these two sides.

Ugly win highlights Barcelona’s need for evolution

Barcelona’s recent history is one of all-encompassing dominance, of playing the Barca way and leaving teams chasing shadows. But, of course, that success has been rather more recent than many realise, and it was the product of years of development and finessing.

Rifling through Barcelona’s Champions League history, season by season, highlights that growth better than their domestic success. But those successes in Europe have been punctuated by good football, by that world-famous Barcelona way of playing that drips La Masia. Against Chelsea, in the first leg as well as the second, that style, that superior way of approaching the game was lacking.

The second-leg win at Stamford Bridge carries its caveats for the visitors; the deflection on Aitana’s opening goal, the soft second yellow shown to Kadeisha Buchanan to reduce the hosts to ten, and the question of how much contact there was to award Barcelona the penalty that took them through to a fourth successive Champions League final. Slices of luck were served up to the Catalans who were still guilty of questionable decision-making and not thinking outside of the box.

In their first final appearance in 2019, a heavy loss to Lyon, it was no surprise that their conciliation goal came through the combination of substitutes Andressa Alves and Asisat Oshoala. Barcelona’s strength as they’ve gone on to conquer Europe has been harnessing the balance of that oh-so-typical Blaugrana style and of keeping those who break the mould in the team.

The players can make things happen through their unpredictability, but when Barcelona looks as if every player on the pitch has the same DNA, there is only predictability and it was nearly their undoing.

Fridolina Rolfö, who scored the crucial penalty to tip the tie, is the closest Barcelona have to a rebel, but her teammates all carry the same ideas when it comes to passing and possessing the ball. The conditioning is such that when presented with the ball in the box during stoppage time, despite having the time and space to take the shot herself, Patri Guijarro instinctively attempted to slip the ball through to a teammate in a less advantageous position.

For all the beauty of the Barca DNA, its failings were what led to the ugly nature of their win with the team unable to manipulate the space cloaking the Blue wall at the Bridge.

With each manager that has led them through their recent successes, there has been the evolution teams need as they navigate their way through as the tide rises and teams learn how to deal with you, but over the two semifinal legs, Barcelona have looked lost, bereft of fresh ideas.

This summer will be another period of change for the Catalans with manager Jonatan Giráldez leaving to take charge of the Washington Spirit and with his team beginning to look stale, the divorce will be beneficial for all parties. To lift another European crown, Barcelona will need to do what they’ve never done before and beat a French team in the final, but to do that, fresh ideas are needed. — Sophie Lawson

European fairytale for Hayes’ Blues ends in cruel fashion

The fairytale is over. Emma Hayes’ dream ending to her time in charge of Chelsea came crumbling down. The one title that has eluded her for 12 years will continue to be the dream that never was, and in her own words, Chelsea were robbed.

The devastated tears in the player’s eyes and the sunken forms encapsulated the emotions in the Chelsea camp and Hayes’ exclamation of “robbed” as the final whistle blew summed up her frustration. As she began her subdued lap of applause around Stamford Bridge for the final time, it was the harshest farewell the manager could have faced.

It would always be a mountain for Chelsea to climb to defeat the reigning champions and book their place in their second final. However, having done so once already — winning the first leg 1-0 — and with a record 39,398 fans in-house, everything seemed to be in the Blues’ favour heading into the tie. That was until small margins in the refereeing decisions went against the hosts and crushed their chances of reaching the final in Bilbao.

Kadeisha Buchanan faced a red card following two yellows five minutes apart. It was a poor call to show the defender a second yellow, but with no ability to review it, Chelsea went down to 10. Then, a soft penalty call on Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí gifted Barcelona a chance from the spot, which put Barcelona in front for the first time in two legs.

Chelsea could be aggrieved at the poor officiating, but that is only half the story. If the routinely clinical Chelsea could have capitalised on their prime chances much earlier, the rest of the afternoon may have been far less calamitous.

On a momentous occasion for Chelsea, their usual ability to know the perfect move to foil an opponent was completely missing. Simply put, Chelsea’s decision-making was substandard. Countless chances should have led to Chelsea taking the lead, levelling or even going a goal up, however, the final touch or pass was the wrong decision.

Melanie Leupolz was unmarked in the box and hit the woodwork from six yards out, Erin Cuthbert twice catapulted the ball over the goal, and Sjoeke Nüsken sent a sliding chance that rattled the post; there were so many chances that the hosts squandered. Even with the return of captain Millie Bright after more than five months absent following a knee injury, the Blues could not find the back of the net.

A month ago, Chelsea were on course for a possible quadruple; now Hayes could be looking at starting her tenure as head coach of the United States women’s national team trophyless. It all rests on the Women’s Super League title now. — Emily Keogh

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