WCL semis: Chelsea bid to avenge Barca defeat as Arsenal face Wolfsburg

The first legs of the Women’s Champions League semi-finals are played this weekend as Chelsea host Barcelona at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon, while Arsenal are away to Wolfsburg on Sunday.

The English duo have faced their opponents before. Chelsea capitulated to a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Barcelona two years ago in their first Champions League final appearance.

Wolfsburg forced Arsenal to exit the competition at the quarter-final stage last season, having previously got the better of them in the competition 10 years ago.

But will the English clubs be able to supersede their European counterparts this time around?

Have Chelsea evolved since their Champions League final defeat to Barcelona?

Aitana Bonmati scores Barcelona's third goal
Chelsea lost to Barcelona in the 2021 Women’s Champions League final

There were many reasons why things did not work out the way Emma Hayes wanted them to in that infamous loss to Barcelona two years ago. From the early own goal scored by Melanie Leupolz to an inability to suppress Caroline Graham Hansen, it was clear the squad needed fortifying in several departments.

June came, and with it six summer signings assigned to fill the cavities in the squad. Eve Perisset and Kadeisha Buchanan slotted into defence, Jelena Cankovic and Katerina Svitkova acted as midfield back-ups, and the renaissance of Lauren James completed the transformation.

Chelsea finally had the squad to compete in the Champions League. However, they still needed to figure out the best system to compliment all the players, and Hayes has spent a large portion of this season doing that.

The 4-2-3-1 formation that utilises both full-backs on the wing and focuses on a more possession-based style of football has become the preferred way of playing. Ball-carriers like James and Guro Reiten have helped facilitate that in the absence of playmakers Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Chelsea’s Jess Carter reveals how she missed a day of school to make her professional debut at the age of 16 for Birmingham in the Champions League quarter-final!

Teams have found ways to combat it by targeting Chelsea’s central defenders, an area Hayes has been forced to fiddle with through injury absences.

It has meant the two midfield pivots, likely Erin Cuthbert and Leupolz, have played more unorthodox positions too.

Has it worked? Mostly. Will it work this weekend? Perhaps. For all of Chelsea’s depleted midfield creativity, they still have a Sam Kerr to bail them out.

They will need her and the rest of the Bridge to pull together ahead of a monstrous second leg in Spain next week.

Hayes: Barcelona play best football in Europe, we must be perfect

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes:

“Every team evolves. Barcelona have improved in lots of ways, they’ve developed experiences, they’ve changed players and developed different dimensions.

“Equally, so have we. We are more experienced than we were two years ago. For us, being in semi-finals is something we expect of ourselves. We’ve had a lot of winning in the last two years and we’re as prepared as we can be going into tomorrow.

“[Beating Lyon] gave us confidence to win the way that we won, but it’s not an extra motivation.

“We know what Barcelona think of us and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to show that for us as a team, our expectations for ourselves is that we are in these positions all the time.

“We respect Barcelona, they play the best football in Europe. We have to be perfect with everything we do, but we’re excited.”

How will injury absences impact the Blues’ defensive set-up?

Emma Hayes believes ticket prices should be increased for women's football games in order to play at bigger stadiums
Millie Bright has been absent for Chelsea in recent matches

Hayes will be without Millie Bright and Buchanan, which will not settle any nerves for Chelsea fans.

It means the brunt of the defensive duties will likely fall on Magda Eriksson, with Maren Mjelde joining her at the heart of the central defence. Perisset and Jess Carter will take up the full-back roles.

Niamh Charles can play slightly further upfield, funnelling possession to James and Reiten, while Leupolz and Cuthbert dig their heels into the midfield.

Chelsea’s approach will aim to cover the losses of the players who continue to watch from the sidelines.

Follow the Women’s Champions League on Sky Sports

Follow both Chelsea vs Barcelona and Wolfsburg vs Arsenal across Sky Sports digital platforms in our dedicated live blogs, including analysis and reaction.
Also follow updates from both semi-finals, plus all the latest reaction, across Sky Sports News.

Harder has only just been brought back into the fold after a substantial spell on the sidelines nursing a hamstring injury. At the same time, Kirby has been absent since mid-January.

Cankovic and Leupolz are still grappling with fitness issues, which has made it increasingly difficult for the Blues to bring a creative force to the centre of the pitch.

If Barca can close those pathways to Kerr with a high-pressing approach, it could become challenging for the hosts to see any action in the final third.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Highlights of the WSL match between Aston Villa and Chelsea

How can the hosts exploit Barcelona’s weaknesses?

In 25 matches during this domestic campaign, Jonatan Giraldez’s side have scored an astounding 105 goals, allowing just five, as they created a 13-point gap at the top of Liga F.

With Chelsea’s central defence needing more sturdiness, there is an increasing likelihood they might have to outscore their opponents if they are to come away from Stamford Bridge with an advantage.

Allowing James to play untethered in a shadow-striker role where she can dribble rampantly and connect with Kerr may be the best way of bringing that about.

Ann-Katrin Berger could also play a big part. The Germany international has kept three clean sheets in her five European appearances this term, helping Chelsea to the best record in this season’s Women’s Champions League (6).

She produced a mammoth performance against Lyon in the last round, saving Wendie Renard and Lindsey Horan’s penalties to secure her side’s progression to the semis.

Barcelona will be keen to test her from the game’s early moments. Whether it is Asisat Oshoala, who has scored 19 goals in the league and Europe this season, or Aitana Bonmati, Maria Leon and Fridolina Rolfo, there is an embarrassment of riches on hand for the Spanish side to torment Berger.

The good news for Berger is that the most problematic player might not be on the pitch. Alexia Putellas, the back-to-back Ballon d’Or Feminin winner, is in the final stages of her recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament tear and is doubtful to start on Saturday.

Will Arsenal have learned anything from last year’s exit?

Arsenal had no way to combat Jill Roord the last time they met Wolfsburg in March 2022. They might have narrowly succumbed to defeat in the first leg, but there was no escape from the cold reality they would again fall short at the second time asking.

Roord’s efforts, combined with an own goal from Leah son, confirmed that. It is worth mentioning that, at the time, the Gunners were also missing Beth Mead and Lia Walti.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Highlights of the WSL match between Manchester United and Arsenal

Sure, Eidevall’s side have spent the last five months or so performing well enough without their key starters, but they may need to remember just how harshly they were sentenced when they last squared up to Wolfsburg with a depleted attack.

There needed to be more creativity to help battle the swathes of opposition attack. However, lessening the load on the defence was an impossible task as Svenja Huth on the right wing drew Steph Catley out wide and left a big gap to exploit on countless occasions.

The brilliant Lena Oberdorf used that space more than once, delivering a series of threatening crosses to challenge the Arsenal defence. Finding a way to suppress her talents will be critical.

How will Arsenal’s depleted attack – and defence – fare against Wolfsburg?

Leah son limped off early with a suspected knee injury
Leah son limped off early with a knee injury in midweek

Wolfsburg got the better of Arsenal in the 2012/13 semi-finals, on their way to the first of two titles, and then again last year in the quarter-finals. Failing to overcome the German side twice has left the Gunners wanting in a few areas, compounded by the injury absences of Mead, Vivianne Miedema, Kim Little and now the ACL rupture suffered by captain son.

If there is any respite for Arsenal, they have spent all season practising the art of winning while being short-staffed, and in parts it has worked. Combine that with the fact Catley and Caitlin Foord could both be back, then there is still plenty to be hopeful about.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Arsenal Women’s head coach Jonas Eidevall says he is delighted that the team’s captain Kim Little has signed a new contract with the club, citing her as a ‘massive part’ of the team’s culture

There might be more good news too. Alexandra Popp and Marina Hegering, key cogs in the Wolfsburg attacking set-up, are doubtful to start on Sunday, while Lena Lattwein is definitely out until the end of the season with a broken collarbone.

It means we will likely see Wolfsburg set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Oberdorf and Huth as the midfield holders, while Jule Brand, Roord, Sveindis Jonsdottir and Ewa Pajor make up the attack.

Arsenal, meanwhile, will have to delve into their squad and will likely field a 4-3-3 system that sees Lotte Wubben-Moy pivot the back four.

Adblock test

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *