How Chelsea pulled off Champions League’s greatest escape

Chelsea will face Barcelona in the semi-finals in a repeat of the 2021 final   (Getty Images)
Chelsea will face Barcelona in the semi-finals in a repeat of the 2021 final (Getty Images)

How on earth did Chelsea escape this? With 122 minutes on the clock against Lyon, the dominant force in the Champions League, Chelsea were done, out, and had reached the end of their road in this competition. But the night after Arsenal made the Emirates their home, Chelsea had their moment at Stamford Bridge to join them in the semi-finals. How they needed those fans in the Shed End during the penalty shootout, as Ann-Katrin Berger saved from Wendie Renard and then Lindsey Horan to seal a famous victory on a night of stunning drama.

With a sense of growing inevitability, Lyon had shown the authority of eight-time winners to overturn Chelsea’s first-leg lead. In extra time Chelsea were doing all they could to hold on, down to their barest of bones. With Chelsea depleted, Lyon strengthened.

Sonia Bompastor could call upon quality at the level of Ada Hegerberg and Sara Dabritz and they combined for what looked to be the winning goal in the 110th minute. But then, deep into stoppage time, the ball broke to Lauren James and Chelsea dragged themselves into European folklore.

James looked to have gone down a blind alley, but then came the touch from Lyon’s Vicki Becho. James tripped, there was a delay, and then referee Ivana Martincic was sent to the monitor. Six minutes had elapsed when Maren Mjelde finally stood over the ball, in the final kick of the game.

Emma Hayes couldn’t look but Mjelde, standing on her own with all other players sent away by referee Martincic, dispatched the equaliser into the top corner and past Christiane Endler.

Mjelde equalised under the most intense pressure (Getty Images)
Mjelde equalised under the most intense pressure (Getty Images)

Chelsea were granted the most valuable of reprieves. There could have been no complaints had Lyon held on for a moment longer and progressed but Chelsea, powered by the Stamford Bridge crowd, summoned something special. Berger was magnificent, setting up the chance for James to seal it, only to win the shootout all over again as she saved from Horan. The emotions at the end were clear, with Erin Cuthbert among those in tears, but crucially Chelsea will be back here again when they host Barcelona. The European nights will just get bigger.

You’d take any result against Lyon in the Champions League but leaving it until the 128th minute against the holders and serial winners feels like utter madness. But it’s what Chelsea do, with Hayes’s mentality monsters finding their powers just when they needed to. England’s dominant force in the domestic game have stunned Europe’s supreme winning machine, and on a night when they didn’t nearly reach the same level they managed last week in France.

Extra time was a test of Chelsea’s resources as well as their legs. The absences were adding up. With Millie Bright, Fran Kirby, Pernille Harder all unavailable, and Melanie Leupolz and Eve Perisset forced off in the second half, Hayes was forced to name just eight substitutes before kick-off, two of them goalkeepers.

Chelsea had at times appeared stuck, drifting through periods where they lost control and made it too easy for Lyon to play through them. It was most apparent in two spells, right at that start, where Chelsea survived an onslaught of chances, and near the end, when Lyon equalised to force extra time. Chelsea had been warned that they could not switch off but did, as Horan got around the outside of Jess Carter and pulled it back to Vanessa Gilles, whose shot squirmed past Berger.

Berger was the hero for Chelsea in the shootout (Getty Images)
Berger was the hero for Chelsea in the shootout (Getty Images)

The breakthrough had been coming since the opening minutes. Hegerberg must have watched on from the bench following her return from injury in exasperation at the chances her teammates missed in the first half. Chelsea were shaky in the absence of Bright and it placed more responsibility on Kerr and James, both of whom were played centrally.

Though the tweak from Hayes only added to Chelsea’s struggles, with both Kerr and James drifting on the periphery. They were of course excellent when they could get into the game, combining wonderfully to set up Chelsea’s best chance midway through the first half, but Kerr was denied by Endler.

How Chelsea needed more of their contributions. While James was outstanding on the right in Lyon, her moments were far more fleeting at Stamford Bridge. The 21-year-old was starved of space and started to take matters into her own hands, coming close to a stunning goal after receiving a short corner, twisting and turning away from Damaris Egurolla, before a testing shot from an angle that Endler needed to tip over. Chelsea needed more, but in the second half found it in short supply. They returned to their passiveness, as Lyon started turning the screw.

Gilles beat Eriksson to Horan’s pull-back and extra time came, where Hegerberg squared for Dabritz to finish low past Berger. That should have been it: Chelsea appeared to have nothing else but found one more moment, as James tumbled. Stamford Bridge found its voice and on the second consecutive night in London, it could be said that this was more than just a night of drama in the competition – it was the night where Chelsea came home as well.