Emma Hayes, after watching Wolfsburg knock out Chelsea from the Champions League in three consecutive seasons from 2016 to 2018, would be forgiven for spoiling a draw that once again twinned them in the competition. Instead, Hayes is “looking forward” to seeing how his team will fare in the quarterfinals against their former enemies.
“I think everyone would say the same thing,” the coach said ahead of Wednesday’s first leg in Budapest. “I can’t wait to watch [my side] face a team that has won, every time, in the biggest games against us, and I’m extremely curious to see how far we’ve come in the past three years.
This is Hayes ‘measure: Every defeat in Europe’s premier competition has provided a new lesson, the last bit of code that should help Chelsea step into an exclusive Champions League winners’ club that has only hosted only once an English team – Arsenal in 2007.
This time, too, Chelsea have a not-so-secret weapon in Pernille Harder, who swapped Wolfsburg for London this summer.
As for the German club, it was a reluctant abandonment of their star, as the sporting director Ralf Kellermann explained at the time. “Considering the fact that we are dealing with record transfer fees for the women’s match – without going into the precise nature of the sum involved – and that Pernille was only going to be with us for another 10 months and had just played in the of the UWCL final tournament for us, we decided it was a fair solution for all parties involved, ”he said.
Hayes has been keen to play down the role the current European Player of the Year could play in helping Chelsea finally defeat two-time winner Wolfsburg and seven-time champion Lyon.
“We all know Pernille is a world class player, but she also plays for a world class team and we have attacking talents that go beyond Pernille,” she said. “We have very well placed players, in great shape. The reality is that the outcome does not depend on any particular player, it depends on the whole and Pernille is part of that whole.
She’s right, but Harder’s transfer was more than just strengthening Chelsea and weakening the German champions. It reflected a bigger power shift in European football: that the best in England slowly overtake the best in Germany. Defeat Wolfsburg and the transition will be complete, with the overall strength of the Women’s Super League finally producing European competitors.
Wolfsburg manager Stephan Lerch took the time to welcome the latest development in England, the record-breaking broadcast rights deal for the WSL. “It’s a good thing for women’s football and it sends a strong message,” he said. “I can only congratulate the English league for this. This is what you call visibility. England is making big strides with this while in Germany we are only taking small steps. In this case, they are definitely ahead of us.
Hayes believes there are finally serious challengers at clubs in France and Germany.
“This is the first real year, although there has been much closer progress in recent years. I’ve said it before, I think six teams could win easily. I don’t think there is one favorite among the many. It all depends, at this point, on how you handle things. “
Wolfsburg have to deal with Harder, the player they built their squad around and in that sense they could have an advantage. “We know her very well and have worked with her for a long time,” Lerch said. “We know her strengths but also what she doesn’t like. We have to watch out for her and make sure she doesn’t show off her qualities on the pitch. We have to be careful and not give it a lot of space. It can also work very well with small spaces, but even better with larger spaces.
They know Harder, but Harder knows Wolfsburg, as does his partner and teammate, Chelsea captain Madga Eriksson. “I also know a lot since I followed them very closely when she played there, so I feel like I have a good view of them too,” said the Sweden international. “Small details you can ask P, but our analysis team also did a great job. “
Focusing too much on Harder, as Chelsea brag about players like Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr, could be fatal for Wolfsburg. “We won’t make that mistake,” Lerch said.
“I would rank them just behind Olympique de Lyon given the composition they have. Chelsea’s quality has improved a lot since the last time we played them, not just because of the deal with Pernille. For me, Pernille is still the most complete player there is and a player like she makes every team stronger and better. But we must also mention players like Sam Kerr and Melanie Leupolz. It’s an eye-level duel now and our goal is to maintain our winning streak against them, but we have to be wide awake right away.