On Wednesday evening in Madrid, Emma Hayes will kick off her eighth and final Champions League campaign as Chelsea manager. The pinnacle of European football remains the only piece of silverware that has eluded Hayes in her trophy-laden 11-year tenure at the club.
Hayes points to the fact that she has a winners’ medal from 2007 when she was assistant coach at Vic Akers’s all-conquering Arsenal. “I have already won the Champions League, and that meant the world to me,” she said recently. “I’ve already won it and I know what my role was in that team, and I know the impact we all had on each other. So, it isn’t missing out of my cabinet. It’s very firmly there. I’ve got a gold one and I’ve got silver one. Would I like to do it as the manager of Chelsea? Of course, I’d love to. But it isn’t missing from my life.”
Chelsea’s adventures in Europe under Hayes have been a story of slow but sure progress. It has not been a linear journey. Hayes’s seven previous runs at the trophy have been littered with frustration, so close but still so far away from lifting the coveted prize. In the 2010s, Chelsea regularly came up against Wolfsburg, a team that became their nemesis. The German club halted their progress on three occasions before the Blues finally got the better of them in the quarter‑finals of the 2020-21 campaign. That was the year Chelsea made their only final appearance, comfortably swept away 4-0 by Barcelona in Gothenburg.
Year on year, Hayes has added world-class players to try to take them that one step further. The arrival of players such as Ashley Lawrence and Catarina Macario this summer to a squad that already contains multiple champions provides further depth to a team that has an incredible understanding of how to win at domestic level.
The problem for Hayes is that achieving Champions League success only gets more difficult. There has been plenty of focus on the teams that have not made the group stage this year – Wolfsburg, Arsenal and Juventus, for example. From the outside, the task may look easier but, in reality, it points to the development of the game. There is no doubt that Chelsea have been drawn in a testing group alongside Real Madrid, Paris FC and Häcken.
Madrid gave the Blues plenty to think about when they met last season and, despite the absence of Caroline Weir with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, possess talents such as Linda Caicedo, Athenea del Castillo and Hayley Raso. The Spanish side sit second in Liga F, three points behind Barcelona. Paris FC have captured the headlines in this campaign, gaining the title of giant-slayers. They took out Arsenal (semi-finalists last year) in the first round of qualifying and Wolfsburg (runners-up last season) in the second. They have been impressing at home too, sitting just behind Lyon in Division 1.
Häcken could also cause problems. They narrowly missed out on the Damallsvenskan title at the weekend on goal difference and have a squad that have caught the eye. The England youngster Ruby Grant plays for the Swedish team and the 21-year-old midfielder is one to watch for Lionesses fans.
Inevitably, Barcelona and Lyon remain favourites to lift the trophy in Bilbao in May. On paper, they have been handed simpler draws in Group A and B respectively and are expected to progress comfortably. Who will join them as runners-up, however, is harder to predict. In Group A, Rosengård, Eintracht Frankfurt and Benfica will all feel they have a strong chance, as will Slavia Praha, St Pölten and Brann in Group B.
Group C has been labelled the “group of death”. Bayern Munich, PSG, Roma and Ajax present a series of intriguing encounters. England’s Georgia Stanway has established herself in Germany and will be looking to reach the knockout stages for the second time in her Bayern career. PSG have star quality in the form of Tabitha Chawinga, Lieke Martens and Sandy Baltimore, while Roma were a surprise package last season and have continued to build on their success. Ajax, on their day, can provide a stern test for any opponent, as Arsenal found out last season.
All this points to Chelsea’s path not getting any easier. Hayes has been keen to warn against complacency, highlighting how tough the competition has become, and will no doubt instil that in her squad. The dream of a Champions League title as a perfect send-off remains alive, but how they cope with the obstacles in the group stage will show how well placed they are for a run at the trophy.