Emma Hayes said Chelsea had “closed the gap” on Europe’s elite after a 2-1 defeat of Wolfsburg in their Champions League quarter-final first leg – their first win in seven attempts against the German champions.
Goals from Sam Kerr and the former Wolfsburg forward Pernille Harder rewarded a dramatic second-half shift in the game’s momentum.
“I enjoyed it,” Hayes, the Chelsea manager, said of the end-to-end game played in Budapest, where the teams will return for the second leg next Wednesday. “We’ve closed the gap, which is what my first curiosity was. They’re still a top team. I learnt that you have to suffer in moments, but the first leg is always about staying in the tie.”
It had been all Wolfsburg but they were wasteful, and Hayes’s team ensured it became a cliched game of two halves, a penalty conceded by the captain, Magda Eriksson, and converted by Dominique Janssen the only blot on a battling victory.
Chelsea struggled to get a grip on the game in the middle with the Wolfsburg captain, Alex Popp, at the centre of the German team’s early dominance. The 29-year-old hit the post and had a goal rightly ruled out for handball in quick succession – while a double save from the last-16 hero Ann‑Katrin Berger once more spared Chelsea blushes.
It was a humbling start for the champions of England. Whether it was Wolfsburg’s deeper history of investment and experience at this level fuelling their performance, or the weight of five defeats and one draw in their six previous meetings of these two teams in the Champions League, Chelsea were uncharacteristically on the ropes.
In the second half a markedly different side emerged and bodies poured forward leaving Kerr less isolated. “I encouraged the team to be brave, I coached them from the touchline all night whenever I felt we weren’t doing that, in possession or out of possession. I think the referee doesn’t like my voice, oh well, I think I earned my money today,” said Hayes, who was booked at the close after Popp and Berger collided.
A header from Fridolina Rolfö spun off the bottom of the post but then Chelsea pounced, to punish the profligacy of their opponents. The goal came from a familiar source as Fran Kirby slipped a first-time pass to Kerr who waited for the goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek to commit before firing high into the net from a tight angle.
With a new fire in their bellies Chelsea went on the hunt and Harder doubled the lead against the team she was at the heart of until her summer move. Kirby won the ball high and passed infield to Kerr who fed Harder on her right and the Danish forward slipped the ball into the net.
With the momentum emphatically swung Chelsea’s way Wolfsburg needed to regroup and a rash challenge on Svenja Huth from the captain, Eriksson, who missed the first leg against Atlético Madrid through injury, handed the away team in this first leg a lifeline with the former Arsenal centre-back Janssen blasting in the resulting penalty.
Chelsea were made to work hard to hold on to their lead as the German side flooded forward, buoyed by the goal, but they met a resilient wall of blue. Chelsea have a small advantage going into the second ‘away’ leg, but there will be huge confidence taken from their first win over Wolfsburg. “I just watched the maturity in some of [my players] tonight,” Hayes said. “I always say the same thing: ‘I’m not watching the game, I’m watching them’, and I really loved watching them tonight.”