How a dramatic 48 hours sparked a new era for women’s football

·4 min read
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(Getty Images)

Two nights, two teams, and a momentous 48 hours for English clubs in the Women’s Champions League. Yet when Emma Hayes, drained after Chelsea’s head-spinning escape against Lyon, soaked in the buzz that lingered in the air at Stamford Bridge she recognised the importance of not just one victory, but two. “How brilliant was that, what a performance from them,” she said, but Hayes spoke of Arsenal’s display in their stunning win over Bayern Munich, not of Chelsea’s dethroning of Lyon to join the Gunners in the semi-finals.

Both Chelsea and Arsenal had taken huge steps forward in the competition, Arsenal in reaching their first semi-final since 2013, Chelsea in knocking out the eight-time winners after a night of the highest drama. Chelsea played their first knockout match in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge and delivered a comeback to stand among any in the club’s European history, on the night after Arsenal set new records and made the Emirates feel like a home. Jonas Eidevall said history was being written in front of their eyes, and there will now be bigger nights to come.

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“I’m so happy for English football,” Hayes said, after a week that can accelerate interest in the club game - just as the Lionesses started to crackle during their run to the Euros final, before peaking with victory at Wembley. Should either Chelsea or Arsenal go all the way and end English’s football’s 13-year wait for a Women’s Champions League winner then there is potential for it to be a similar seismic moment. Leah Williamson is already attune to it, with the suggestion that Arsenal could one day make the Emirates their permanent home now said to be a realistic vision.

The Champions League is key to it, with the competition providing an elite platform for the scenes that unfolded. The social media hit of Frida Maanum’s stunning goal against Bayern Munich had already racked up millions of views before Chelsea kicked off across London on Thursday night, where Ann-Katrin Berger’s decisive penalty save against Lindsey Horan led to a similar frenzied reaction. At both the Emirates and Stamford Bridge, there was the sense of clubs coming together, united by a goal and a vision.

That will build now towards April’s semi-finals, which has the potential to shatter records and offers both an opportunity to progress and the chance for revenge. Chelsea will play Barcelona for the first time since they were eviscerated in the 2021 final. Arsenal face Wolfsburg, the side who knocked them out in the quarter-finals last season. The crowd at Stamford Bridge and the Emirates were crucial as Chelsea and Arsenal advanced, and will need to be so again.

In doing so, Chelsea and Arsenal became a reflection of their managers. Arsenal against Bayern was a performance of Eidevall’s process coming together, the work put in before over 20 months to engineer the space to dominated the Bundesliga leaders. It was their best performance under Eidevall, the night where they clicked, coming on the biggest stage as they reached their first Champions League semi-final in 10 years.

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(Getty Images)

Six miles west, Chelsea represented the never-say-die attitude of Hayes, showing a refusal to be beaten, which led to the greatest of escapes in extra time. Chelsea barely played - Hayes abandoned plans to play out from the back and her team repeatedly went long - but they won and like many of their big-game performances in cup finals under the manager, that was all that mattered. “It was the most character-building performance, even if it was the ugliest,” Hayes said.

There were personal stories amongst the madness. Berger, whose season started with the news that her thyroid cancer had returned, was the hero in the shoot-out with two saves in front of the Shed End. “This was her moment after everything she’s been through,” Hayes said. Maren Mjelde, an integral part of Chelsea’s success, even if other star players garner more attention, twice held her nerve twice under the most intense pressure, first to equalise and then score Chelsea’s opening penalty in the shoot-out.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Eidevall spoke towards the bigger picture, and the structure behind the women’s team that led to Arsenal’s breakthrough. "The support from the whole club is magnificent,” he hailed. “There is a lot of talk about always acting with class - you really understand the meaning of that when you’re inside the organisation. It’s ingrained and it spreads down in the organisation. The communication and belief from them is amazing." Mikel Arteta was in the stands at the Emirates, as was Graham Potter at Stamford Bridge.

It builds now to late April - towards bigger games and bigger crowds. Meanwhile, the Women’s Super League is heading for its most exciting title race yet, with Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City all still within contention and separated by the finest of margins at the top of the table. Decisions might have to be made given the London club’s European pursuits, but the past two nights should show Chelsea and Arsenal where their priorities lie. After all the drama, there is no limit on what could come next.