If Group A looked a group of death, then Chelsea are starting to resemble an execution gang. Last time out here, it was death by a thousand cuts: Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder helping themselves to hat-tricks in an 8-0 win over Vllaznia, as the London side sparkled on the ball.
But on Wednesday, they required more patience, more steel and a more rudimentary method to unlock Real Madrid. With a scrappy, congested battle ebbing towards a stalemate, Millie Bright flicked on a 67th minute corner for Sophie Ingle to nod in.
For all Fran Kirby’s craft, all Guro Reiten’s whipped crosses and all Kerr’s smart snaps of movement, the deadlock was broken in a more rudimentary way. Nine minutes later, victory was sealed with a weapon they didn’t even know they had. Erin Cuthbert’s mishit cross flew over Misa Rodriguez and dropped in the net.
“We started the seceond half not so well and somehow managed to claw our way back in to it and get that goal,” Chelsea’s Swedish captain Magdalena Eriksson told DW after the game. “After the goal I think we dominated and it felt like a secure win in the end. Three games, three wins, I think we’ve learned our lessons from last year’s group stage exit.”
It may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing performance. But both Erikssen and Hayes spoke of how last year’s early exit was a learning experience and of an added maturity this term. That Cuthbert and Ingle, the two who scrapped hardest yet stayed calmest to edge the midfield mire, were the scorers was fitting.
Hayes said Cuthbert in particular was “outstanding. I don’t think there was a blade of grass she didn’t cover.”
That’s 10 wins in a row now for the English champions, who have won all three of their Champions League games without conceding a goal, including victory in Paris against PSG. Madrid may not have much history but they do have resources, with former Manchester City star Caroline Weir a reminder of that.
But, in truth, neither Weir not her team ever threatened Chelsea’s German keeper Ann-Katrin Berger and Alberto Toril’s side, who were hammered 4-0 by Barcelona earlier this month, have work to do. That result leaves them eight points behind the Catalans, who have won every league game, though Madrid have a game in hand.
Their path forward in this competition looks only slightly less fraught, with the reverse of this fixture on December 8 a daunting prospect and a trip to Paris to follow. For Chelsea, another win in Madrid will see them through arguably the toughest group of this season’s competition.
Though they miss the injured Pernille Harder, Hayes side are seriously well-drilled unit, one who know how to win both games and trophies. Their 4-0 humbling at the hands of Barca in the 2021 final hurt, but Hayes has found strength in that, winning the double last term.
“This side is at another level. I think learning from last year helped, learning from losing in the final helped,” she said in her postmatch press conference. “We should be able to come through these games, we’ve got the experience to do it, the quality to do it and I can see the team going in the direction I want them to go in. I can see improvements across the board.”
As injury time ticked down, the crowd sang their coach’s name, followed by a rendition of “Are you watching Man City?” Perhaps they should be asking Barcelona.
Edited by: Rob Turner