Chelsea were held to a 2-2 draw by a resilient Real Madrid side in their Champions League opener at Estadio Alfredo di Stéfano. Olga Carmona’s early strike was cancelled out by Niamh Charles’s header just before the break. Sam Kerr appeared to set Chelsea on the path to victory only for Carmona’s late penalty to ensure the points were shared.
The eve of Chelsea’s return to Madrid was dominated by the news that Emma Hayes had been appointed as the next head coach of the US women’s national team, with the Blues’ manager set to move across to the US at the end of this season. The news of her departure almost 10 days previous will have come as a shock to players and fans alike with MillieBright stating that they were all “gutted”.
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As such, this season will be the eighth and final chance for the longstanding Chelsea manager to get her hands on the as yet elusive Champions League trophy. She oversaw a run to the semi-finals last season that ended in disappointment at the hands of Barcelona and her acquisitions over the summer – Ashley Lawrence and Sjoeke Nüsken, for instance – pointed to her taking one final shot at the one trophy missing from her silverware-laden Chelsea career.
Hayes and her players will have been well aware of the stern test posed by Real Madrid. The two teams met in the group stage last season when the Spanish side caused them several problems. Here Alberto Toril’s team were without their standout midfielder, Caroline Weir, who was sidelined with an ACL injury, but possessed plenty of star quality in the form of Linda Caicedo, Carmona and Athenea del Castillo.
Chelsea came into this in a rich vein of form, unbeaten in their opening six league matches. There were two changes to the side that had beaten Everton at the weekend with Fran Kirby and Lawrence coming in.
The visitors started brightly, passing the ball with ease and trying to find the spaces in between Madrid’s defensive line. They had an early opportunity when a sublime reverse pass from Nüsken found Kirby in the box only for Carmona to get in a brilliant tackle.
Niamh Charles is congratulated by her teammates after levelling the scores at 1-1. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Chelsea FC/Getty Images
Minutes later it was the Spanish World Cup winner who found a way to cause problems. With Chelsea unusually slow to clear their lines, Claudia Zornoza cut out a clearance from Ann-Katrin Berger and played a quick layoff to Carmona. The defender took aim from 20 yards and her shot deflected in off a helpless Bright.
Chelsea looked shell-shocked but gradually began to build momentum. Chances were limited but they took their opportunity just before the break when Charles broke free at the far post to head home a much-needed equaliser.
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It was the spark Chelsea needed as they returned to the field. Kerr had an opportunity to put them ahead, but she has been struggling to find consistency after returning from injury. She broke through the Madrid defence at pace but allowed Misa to get a good hand to the shot.
Despite controlling possession, however, Chelsea were lacking their trademark ruthless edge. The introduction of Lauren James for Kirby with half an hour to play was an attempt from Hayes to ignite their creative flame but they continued to struggle to find their rhythm while having to be alert to dangers at the other end. Del Castillo had a shot blocked brilliantly by Charles on one of the hosts’ rare forays forward.
The game burst into life with just over 15 minutes to play. Chelsea finally broke the deadlock when Kerr headed home Charles’ delivery. Just as Chelsea were looking to see out the game, however, controversy reigned when Del Castillo broke at pace. Jessie Fleming slid in, seemingly outside the box, but the referee pointed to the spot. Carmona expertly drilled home the penalty to the delight of the home fans.
Johanna Rytting Kaneryd had a late effort tipped brilliantly wide by Misa as the visitors piled on the pressure. Hayes’s team, however, were once again foiled by Madrid’s stubborn resistance, having to settle for a point in their Champions League opener.