Emma Hayes heaped praise on Ann-Katrin Berger after the goalkeeper saved two penalties and took a knee to the face as Chelsea overcame Atlético Madrid in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie.
Having been reduced to 10 players early on, a penalty from Maren Mjelde and a goal from Fran Kirby helped the Blues to a 2-0 home win that they take to a neutral ground in Italy for the second leg, owing to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
“Goalkeepers don’t get spoken about enough,” Hayes said. “Two penalties, two saves, a kick on the head, I thought her overall performance was outstanding. She’s the best shot stopper in the league, everyone in my squad says she’s extremely difficult to beat. Let’s give her the credit tonight she was absolutely brilliant.”
The Women’s Super League leaders were undoubtedly favourites heading into the tie, with Atlético sitting fourth in La Liga. However Hayes, had warned before the game of the irrelevance of league standings. “Listen, they’re a great cup team,” the Chelsea manager said. “Cups are different. I’ve learned that these are the teams you must absolutely pay the most attention to.”
Chelsea’s plans were ripped up within 12 minutes as a long ball over the top from Kylie Strom caught Sophie Ingle off guard and played in Rasheedat Ajibade. Attempting to recover, Ingle brought down the Nigerian winger and the referee pointed to the spot and flashed a red card. Ingle was filling in at centre-back for the injured club captain Magda Eriksson, who had picked up an injury in training. Up stepped the Venezuelan forward Deyna Castellanos but her weak low penalty-kick was palmed away by Berger.
With the damage limited by the German, Hayes shuffled her pack. Off came the forward Beth England and Mjelde was shifted into the middle of defence alongside Millie Bright, with Niamh Charles coming on to slot in at right-back.
Hayes prides herself on building a squad that can manage the unexpected and in the second half Chelsea were rewarded for their resilience. Sam Kerr made a driving run into the box from the left. She had three striped shirts around her and nowhere to go but an ill-timed challenge from Aïssatou Tounkara felled her and it was Chelsea’s turn to try from the spot. Mjelde side-footed cleanly into the corner.
Then within minutes of hitting a post Kirby struck, sending a low effort past her former Chelsea teammate Hedvig Lindahl to give the home side a two-goal cushion.
A wild attempt to claim a through ball resulted in another penalty but Berger saved again, this time from Merel van Dongen, and took a knee to the face as she smothered the rebound.
“Three things: discipline, structure, game management,” Hayes said. “They are the three things this team is built around and I have a group of leaders that cope with difficult moments.”