FC Barcelona Femení have made winning the league look like child’s play this season. With only 26 games played, they have wrapped up the league title having not dropped a single point all season. Not only have they been racking up wins with ease but Barcelona have also been one of the most (if not the most) aesthetically pleasing teams to watch for at least a year now. Yet, going into Sunday’s final, too many people viewed them as underdogs to England’s league champions.
Two years ago, Barcelona were on the losing end of a 4-1 defeat to perennial Champions League winners Olympique Lyonnais Féminin and that loss hurt everyone involved in the club. They wanted to not only get back to the final but get there playing their style of football and ending up with the trophy in their grasp. That loss fueled the Blaugranes to not only retool their squad but also rethink how they play and how effective they could make their style. It took them four years but last night in Gothenburg, they achieved their dream.
Alexia Putellas sparkled, María León stood steadfast and Lieke Martens ran rings around the Chelsea backline. Everything that Barcelona had strived to do leading up to this game paid off and Chelsea could do nothing to stop the onslaught.
Anyone who has paid attention to this Barcelona team may not have expected such a fantastic first 45 minutes from them but you would have known that they had the ability to trouble Chelsea’s backline as long as they were not overawed by the occasion. Previous iterations of Barcelona crumbled under the brightest of lights but this time around, their determination and skill shone through, promptly bringing about Emma Hayes and Chelsea’s demise on the day.
Instead of looking to use their possession-style of play to essentially walk the ball into Chelsea’s net, Barcelona tweaked their tactics and decided to play neat little triangles to draw Chelsea’s press in before springing the counter. They had the ability and belief in themselves to bypass the press and did so easily time and time again. On the break, they looked to target Chelsea’s inexperienced fullbacks (who were forced into those positions due to injuries to more experienced defenders) and both Niamh Charles and Jess Carter’s naivety was exploited at almost every opportunity. Charles and Carter will have better days I’m sure but they were absolutely no match for Martens and Caroline Graham Hansen. They were not the only weaknesses in Chelsea’s tactics on the day, Barcelona also made sure that Ji So-yun would have to go deep to get the ball and even then, did their best to cut off passing lanes to the South Korean. This meant that the three-headed attack of Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Fran Kirby were cut off from any meaningful supply and thus, could not show off their lethalness in front of goal.
Lluís Cortés created an exceptional game plan and his team pulled it off even better than he could have imagined.
Not only did Barcelona’s wingers make life difficult for Chelsea but their midfielders and Jenni Hermoso also showed the English side how to not only hold up play well but also split defenses apart with just one slide rule pass. Putellas, the immaculate Kheira Hamraoui and Aitana Bonmatí were brilliant going forward and at shielding their defenders from being too exposed to Chelsea’s forwards. Even if Chelsea managed to find a way through that Barcelona midfield, all four of Barcelona’s defenders (León, Patricia Guijarro, Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi) stood up well in one-on-one situations with any of Chelsea’s forwards. Every Barcelona player was on their game and stayed on it for the duration of the match, even after going up four-nil before half-time.
It’s not easy to pick out which Barcelona played the best as all of them were fantastic to watch but what gave the Catalans the platform to perform the way they did was the midfield triumvirate of Putellas, Hamraoui and Bonmatí. Any one of them would walk into any team in the world based on yesterday’s performance and they all showed any young player out there watching exactly what a midfielder should do for their team on both sides of the ball.
Martens started off things in Gothenberg by cutting inside and hitting the crossbar which then led to Barcelona’s first goal as Kirby played the ball off Melanie Leupolz in an effort to clear the ball. The clearance looped off the German and over Ann-Katrin Berger, putting Barcelona in front after 35 seconds. Then Graham Hansen caused havoc on the other side of the pitch leading to a Barcelona penalty as she won the ball off Jess Carter and played it to Hermoso, who was clipped by Leupolz in the area. Alexia Putellas, who was match fit just in time for the final, stood patiently during the VAR check and then sent Berger the wrong way to put Barcelona 2-0 up in the 14th minute. Chelsea had chances but could not connect and it only got worse for them as the half wore on. Martens broke away from Charles again in the 20th minute and found Hermoso. The Barcelona forward held up the ball before finding Putellas who played an inch perfect pass that took out four or five Chelsea defenders in one go. Bonmatí was her target and it fell right into her path. The 23-year old took a touch and then proceeded to finish coolly past Berger for Barcelona’s third. It felt like an onslaught from the first whistle and Chelsea had barely any time to recover their composure after each goal. Graham Hansen then effectively ended the game with an easy tap in after Martens made both Charles and Millie Bright look like traffic cones in the 36th minute.
It would be easy to say that Chelsea’s defense was the core issue for them but that would take away from just how well Barcelona played. Not only did they find the gaps that were afforded to them by Chelsea’s seemingly fragile backline but they also refused to give Chelsea any hope of coming back into the game. In the second half, with Chelsea pushing for some kind of consolation goal, Barcelona held firm and the likes of Martens who had been splendid going forward now looked to put in an immense shift in defending and helping keep that clean sheet.
Chelsea fought back as much as they could, bringing on attacker after attacker but Barcelona were determined to make this day all about them and would not break, no matter what Chelsea threw at them. In fact, I can’t remember Sandra Paños having to make any big saves throughout the match, which shows you just how switched on those in front of her were (and also shows just how poor going forward Chelsea were last night).
Sunday evening had been billed by many as Chelsea and Emma Hayes’ crowning moment. Instead, Barcelona and Lluís Cortés made sure that all the talk would be about them then, now and going forward. The Barcelona players had not forgotten Sam Kerr’s words four years ago when they were on the receiving end of a demolition, nor had they forgotten how all the pre-match talk had been about Chelsea. They made sure that if you hadn’t been paying attention to them before, you will now and as Vicky Losada raised the trophy over her head into the night sky, emphasized their belief of being the best team in the world right now.