Chelsea eyeing Champions League semi-final place in Hayes’ final season

Chelsea prepare to face Ajax on Wednesday in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final, having won the first leg 3-0 in Amsterdam last week.

At the Johan Cruyff Arena, Lauren James opened the scoring with an early strike, and Sjoeke Nusken added to the lead with goals either side of the break, to give Chelsea one foot in the semi-finals.

Here are five things our reporter Nathan Edwards learned from the match…

Chelsea into the semi-finals?

It is always a risk to assume a tie is over before the final whistle in the second leg has been blown, but with the Blues managing to build such a healthy buffer between them and their Dutch opponents, Emma Hayes can feel confident of going through.

Such a strong performance away from home will please Hayes massively because it allowed her to rest some of her important players. As the lead grew, James, Erin Cuthbert, Niamh Charles and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd were able to be substituted, and with a WSL title race against Manchester City on the line, mixed with League Cup and FA Cup games, Hayes will be keen to ensure that her players remain fresh for the challenges ahead.

Sjoeke Nusken making up for injury-plagued attack

Battling on four fronts brings a strain on the players, especially in forward areas. Sam Kerr and Mia Fishel have both suffered season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injuries recently, while club-record signing Mayra Ramirez was injured in the League Cup semi-final against Manchester City.

The trio had scored 14 goals across all competitions and, despite James being in stunning form, many thought goalscoring would be a challenge for Chelsea. That has been proved wrong, with the Blues scoring six goals in their last two games and Nusken netting four of them. 

VAR’s slow return

After not featuring in the group stage of the UWCL, VAR returned to the knockout rounds, after being present in the 2020 and 2021 finals, and the knockout stages of the 2021/22, 2022/23 campaigns.

On this occasion, VAR hindered Chelsea as James’ opener, initially ruled offside was overturned by VAR and given as a goal, while Reiten scored moments before Nusken’s first strike, but Nusken was deemed to have affected play from an offside position and, after going to the screen, referee Maria Caputi ruled Reiten’s goal out. 

The decisions were ultimately correct, but the two stoppages took five minutes to be confirmed and slowed the pace of the game down in the first half.

The growth of the UWCL has had an impact

Since the Champions League became a group stage and then a knockout process in 2021/22, it was aimed to increase competitiveness and growth in the women’s game.

For Ajax’s first-ever appearance at this stage in UWCL, it seemed to have achieved that, despite the scoreline. The Johan Cruyff Arena was host to a Dutch-record attendance of 35,997 people, in comparison Ajax had 400 fans in attendance in their last match. The arrival of Europe’s elite will attract higher attendances, and get more people aware of the teams around them.

It was an entertaining fixture, with Ajax managing to test Chelsea early on but the Blues’ Champions League pedigree shone through, with James’ goal showcasing that as she collected the ball and rounded the goalkeeper to score into an empty net.

Ajax’s new exciting talent coming through

There has been no team more intrinsically linked with producing talent than Ajax, and on the biggest stage of them all it was no different.

The club’s record goalscorer Romee Leuchter was a menace for Hannah Hampton and Chelsea’s defence throughout. The 23-year-old, who has scored 81 goals in 82 games for the club, hit the post early on, but it was her constant pressing that caused Chelsea issues.

Lily Yohannes, the young American is another exciting prospect. At 16 years old, she became the youngest player to start a group stage game (earlier on in the UWCL)

Goalkeeper Regina van Eijk also impressed with her reading of the game and when to come off her line, and despite the 3-0 defeat all three showed that they belong at this level.

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