Erin Cuthbert energised by Chelsea’s ability to frustrate Barcelona

<span>Erin Cuthbert played a key role for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Chelsea;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Chelsea</a> in their momentous victory in Barcelona.</span><span>Photograph: Felipe Mondino/IPA Sport/</span>

“We kept it alive,” was the verdict of Chelsea’s goalscorer, Erin Cuthbert, after their phenomenal and tactically astute 1-0 victory over the European champions Barcelona on Saturday. “It’s all to play for in the second leg.”

Chelsea did more than keep the tie alive going into the second leg at Stamford Bridge: they made the seemingly impossible possible. It has been more than five years since Barcelona lost at home and they had not lost home or away since May 2023. Their last defeat in the Champions League came in December 2022.

Related: Erin Cuthbert gives Chelsea stunning win in first leg of Barcelona semi-final

The Catalan giants, who have reached four of the past five Champions League finals, winning two, could not find a way past Chelsea’s back five, the three centre-backs Jess Carter, Niamh Charles and Kadeisha Buchanan superb, but it would be wrong to single them out, the team defending as a group, holding their shape and staying in sync.

That defensive solidity nullified the attacking threat, limiting a team that had not failed to score since April 2022 to one shot on target, a limp effort deep into stoppage time easily saved by Hannah Hampton.

That frustrated Barcelona, with the stop-start nature of the game prompting the Ballon d’Or and World Cup winner Aitana Bonmatí to accuse Chelsea of “playing dirty”. “We have warned the referee, but it is not up to us if they allow it. We have to know how to play with it,” she added. It wasn’t playing dirty, it was a street-smart and intelligent plan to stop the unstoppable, and the frustration played into Chelsea’s hands. “When teams playing against you start getting a little bit frustrated, that helps because it gives you a lot of energy,” said Cuthbert.

“I think the penalty incident [Buchanan’s handball was ruled out for an offside following a VAR review] really, really gave us a lot of energy. It can go one or two ways. It can then be an onslaught, but at that moment we stepped up, we looked at each other in the eye and said we can do this. This is our game for the taking.”

Last year, when these teams met at the same stage, a 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge did the damage before Chelsea earned a hard-fought 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou. It was an improvement on the 2021 final, where Chelsea conceded four times in the first 36 minutes.

“I felt we were more disciplined this year,” said Cuthbert. “We weren’t chasing spaces. As a midfielder, you can have somebody in front of you, to the side of you, left, right but I wasn’t drawn out of position. I don’t think we were drawn out of areas that we didn’t want to be in because I know they want to exploit the spaces that we then leave. The discipline in our performance and our shape, the comfort to play in that formation as well, the comfort to be disciplined and not jump out of position was really good from us.”

Key to that was trust. “Even if I made a mistake or I jumped out or I didn’t quite get to the ball, I knew my teammate was behind me,” said the Scotland international. “It doesn’t matter if anybody made a mistake. We had all backed each other up and were comfortable in the spaces we were in.”

Cuthbert’s goal came from that collective effort in attack. Irene Paredes, under pressure from Mayra Ramírez, saw her pass intercepted by Ashley Lawrence. The wing-back pulled it back to Cuthbert whose first-time pass found Sjoeke Nüsken in space before she returned it to Cuthbert who took a step beyond Ingrid Engen to fire in.

“You don’t get many chances against Barcelona so you need to take them,” said Cuthbert. “We didn’t have a lot of established possession in their half and in the final third. I’ve made the one-two with Sjoeke, it’s kind of my signature, I like to go again after the ball. Emma [Hayes] wants the discipline but sometimes you just got to take a chance if you see it. She’s picked me out really well. I was going to take it early but I think Engen blocked it really well. So I took the extra touch, I just created that half yard.”

Thinking ahead to the second leg is hard in the immediate aftermath. “I’ll just be enjoying my couple of days off,” said Cuthbert. “It’s up to the staff to then come up with another game plan. It’s going to be a different game at Stamford Bridge. They have to win, so they have to come out, which might give us a little bit more spaces as well. Honestly, I don’t know the game plan yet. That’s why I don’t want to be in coaching because it’s a really difficult job. So I don’t envy the staff. I’m sure they’ll come up with a great game plan.”