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As Chelsea’s players and staff trudged off the field in Gothenburg after watching Barcelona lift the Women’s Champions League trophy, the pain on their faces was clear to see. Just seven days earlier they had been singing Queen’s ‘We are the champions’, after clinching their fourth league title. In Sweden they found themselves looking on forlornly as Barcelona danced to the same tune.
The mood among Chelsea’s executives in the stands, and players in the dressing room, was defiant: ‘We will be back’ came the message. When Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich visited the dressing room after the match, the players told him they would return to the final and strive to go one better. And with such a high-calibre crop of players, most of whom have the peak years of their careers ahead of them, there is little reason to doubt that Chelsea will return to this stage. But, what must they do now to try and ensure they are the ones celebrating in Turin on 22nd May 2022 after next season’s showpiece fixture?
Shore up the defence
On the evidence of Sunday’s chastening defeat, the Londoners must buy well in the transfer market to strengthen their defensive ranks. In some ways they have been unfortunate - missing their rock-solid Norway right-back Maren Mjelde since she suffered a knee injury in March’s League Cup final. Sunday’s starting full-backs Niamh Charles, 21, and Jess Carter, 23, had both impressed in recent weeks, especially in the second leg of Chelsea’s semi-final victory over Bayern Munich when they were near flawless. However, they were badly exposed by Barcelona’s world-class wingers in Sweden, with the Netherlands’ Lieke Martens flying down the Catalan club’s left and Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen similarly proving too strong down their right. Charles and Carter, both England internationals, will continue to develop with age and will learn from the harsh experience of their first European final. But Chelsea will now undoubtedly seek to strengthen their defensive options and enhance their depth.
Chelsea's centre-back options were also found lacking when captain Magdalena Eriksson missed last month’s 2-2 draw away at Manchester City and their semi-final first-leg defeat away at Bayern Munich. While supremely well-organised against domestic opponents with the Sweden skipper, without her, Chelsea appeared shaky. Netherlands defender Aniek Nouwen has already agreed to join Chelsea this summer on a three-year deal from PSV, which will boost their options as an exciting young prospect, but at 22 she is a young player considered one for the future.
Defensive midfield may also be an area for attention. Wales’ Sophie Ingle has been superb for Chelsea in the past couple of seasons and arguably deserves to be in Great Britain’s Olympics squad this summer, but the class and skill of France’s Kheira Hamraoui on display for Barcelona in the same role was a cut above. Alexia Putellas also showed touch and awareness of a calibre rarely seen on UK shores. The bar is being raised.
While any team in the world would struggle to recruit or develop a stronger front three than Chelsea’s Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Fran Kirby, it is those defensive areas in which they must now re-enter the transfer market to go one step further, and that won’t be easy given that they already have the best defensive record in England statistically.
Learn from the defeat
Just as Barcelona have improved since being outclassed in their debut Champions League final against Lyon in 2019, Chelsea must learn from this crushing experience and use the pain of a humbling defeat as fuel for the fire in their bellies to improve.
Big-game nerves were undoubtedly a factor for some of the Chelsea team. Their performance was unlike any other we have seen from them this term, less assured, more doubtful of their touch, and with mistakes uncharacteristically frequent. Fans will hope much of that will be different next time, when the occasion is less overwhelming for some. Would an older, more experienced Charles give the ball away after just 18 seconds? You suspect not. Barcelona’s fluky own goal after 33 seconds, which looped into the net in bizarre fashion as Fran Kirby’s attempted clearance hit Melanie Leupolz, was unfortunate to say the least, but it was also very avoidable in the earlier phase.
Be clinical in front of goal
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Chelsea must take their chances. Barcelona were the better team on Sunday, there is no doubt about that, but the result was 4-0 because they were more clinical. In fact, they had four shots on target in the entire game and scored from three of them (the other goal being the own goal). Chelsea, meanwhile, had the majority of the attempts at goal.
Chelsea know they should have scored in the third minute to equalise almost immediately and potentially set up an entirely different type of game. Carter’s superb, teasing cross was met by Pernille Harder and the goal was gaping. She poked over the bar, from an opportunity the Denmark star would normally convert without a glitch. In such key moments, big games can turn.
But perfection is what it takes to win the continent’s most craved prize and perfection is what Chelsea - who have been near-perfect domestically - must now strive for to match a Barcelona team who have won 26 league games out of 26 this term.