Chelsea Women Manager’ Emma Hayes had insisted beforehand that this game must not be viewed as a big occasion.
‘No-one’s getting married,’ she pointed out, trying to maintain a sense of calm and perspective in an absorbing pre-match discussion of what it would take to deliver an English team to the women’s Champions League final for the first time in 14 years.
It certainly didn’t feel that way on Sunday night. With the strains of Five Star booming out from her team’s dressing room, Hayes was able to reflect on finally crossing the threshold, after the despair of Chelsea’s semi-final eliminations in both 2018 and 2019.
Victory in the final over Barcelona in Gothenburg on May 16 would be immensely well timed, with the British domestic game on the cusp of the vastly increased profile that next season’s Sky and BBC WSL TV deal will bring.
But the technical excellence of the football – matching the Premier League, as this Chelsea team have often done this season – was testament to levels the women’s game has reached, not just where it is going.
The game had been played on a relentless edge, with Bayern’s counter-attacking a source of constant jeopardy, before Pernille Harder made the critical breakthrough, six minutes from time.
Running across the face of goal to meet Jess Carter’s free kick, the Dane dipped a header beyond the goalkeeper – a skill carrying a high degree of technical difficulty.
Fran Kirby – who added a fourth – was the game’s outstanding player. So-Yun Hi was effortless again.
Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes celebrates goal with Pernille harder
The final will hopefully reveal her quite exquisite gifts to a wider audience. Magda Eriksson was a huge presence as the Germans drove for a second half equaliser.
But it was also the afternoon when young Merseyside full-back Niamh Charles made a big statement. As Liverpool’s ambition in women’s football withered, Charles left the club last year.
It was Chelsea’s gain. This feat is reward for the club’s commitment to a women’s team spanning a decade. Hayes reflected on Sunday night on a conversation with the club’s chairman Bruce Buck and former director of football Michael Emenalo in 2012, in which she promised them it would be Chelsea in the final one day.
‘I do think it’s a big moment for women’s football,’ Hayes reflected.
‘We’ve always had to play second fiddle to the men in European football. I hope this might encourage more English teams to think about it.
‘I also just hope there were little girls sitting at home, 10-year-olds, building their own stories. I never had [female football] role models and I hope these girls now do.’
It is lost on no-one at Chelsea, who are favourites to have wrapped up the WSL title before the final, that the club could record the historic feat of winning the men and women’s Champions League in the same season.
Chelsea initially went at the German league leaders like an express train, with Kirby the driving force of the attacking trident which overwhelmed them before opening the27-year-old drove forward from her own half to find Kerr, who cut inside Amanda Ilstedt and returned the ball for Kirby to ease it into space to score.
There is no way to legislate for an equaliser like Bayern’s. Austrian Sarah Zadrazil hit across the ball to send a 30-yard half volley half swerving away from Ann-Katrin Berger and into the top corner.
But Ji provided class of her own, driving a free kick into the Bayern wall and easing the rebound through a forest of players to put the aggregate scores level. Harder’s third goal was by no means the end of it. Eriksson cleared off the line in the 90th minute, falling into the goal as she did so.
Bayern manager Jens Scheuer claimed Chelsea were ‘not the best team over the two matches.’ His side did spurn chances. Lineth Beerensteyn a relentless threat, supplying the one which Lea Schuller drove wide with the scores at 1-1.
They were also hammering on the door for the second goal which would have eliminated Chelsea. But Kirby saw things through in injury time – passing the ball into an empty net on the counter with stranded German goalkeeper Laura Benkarth joining her team’s attack.
A moment of history lies ahead, whatever the outcome. The final will be contested between two sides who have never reached it before. For the first time since Arsenal won it in 2007 – with Hayes on their coaching staff – neither a French nor German side will lift the trophy. And Hayes will become the first woman in 12 years to coach a team which has reached it. But she is not finished yet.