“I love the Champions League and competing in this competition,” says a relaxed Emma Hayes beforeas she prepares for Chelsea’s semi-final first leg at Bayern Munich on Sunday. The club’s manager is referring candidly to the collapsed European Super League, which threatened to colour the critical fixture. “There’s only one super league, and it’s the one we play in,” she adds wryly of the domestic Women’s Super League.
“I’m glad that the outcome has happened, the right thing has happened,” she says of the failure of the breakaway plan, which said a women’s competition would happen in due course. “I’m a merit-based person. I always say I trust my club and the people that run the club. I’m just grateful that we are the only super league.”
With that out of the way and the existing tournament, in which Hayes is desperate for success, still very much alive, the manager is aware Chelsea’s season could be judged a failure if they do not win the trophy after the holders, Lyon, were knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain. The French club face Barcelona in the other semi-final.
“Failure is a really strong word,” she says. “I’d call it a disappointment, not a failure. Failure is not being in this position. To be in with a shot of competing for a Champions League final is what you prepare for, we have a 50-50 chance of making it, I’ll take those odds.”
Many now see Chelsea as the favourites after Bayern’s 26-game winning run ended with back‑to‑back defeats, to Wolfsburg in the German cup then Hoffenheim in the league. Bayern then conceded first in their most recent game, against Turbine Potsdam, before carving out a 3-2 win.
Hayes, though, is understandably wary, having twice been knocked out at the semi-final stage. “You don’t take anything for granted when you play in the European game because it’s so different, sizing each other up takes a game. You cannot win the tie in the first leg, but you can definitely lose your way out of it,” she says.
Bayern are well aware of the threat posed by the west London club. “They’re very fast, have great technique, it’s a team that over the season has improved and built up their complete system, it’s a complete team,” says the midfielder Lina Magull. “Two years ago we won against them 5-0 [in a friendly] but we can’t compare these two teams any more. I don’t know if they are the new powerhouse in Europe, but they are definitely a very strong opponent, and it’s going to be two exciting matches.”
Bayern’s manager, Jens Scheuer, echoes her confidence, saying: “It won’t be any picnic for them, it won’t be a walk in the park, they’ll have to prepare very well.” However, he is under no illusions about the danger posed by Chelsea’s front line and the need to take measures to stifle the threat without compromising Bayern’s style.
“The attacking power of Chelsea is really enormous,” he says. “We have to be careful and not open up free spaces and attack players of opposition immediately, to stop play and passes on to Fran Kirby, Sam Kerr and all these players.”
As a product of the thriving WSL, Chelsea are a great advert for English football. England may not have caught up with Germany on the international stage yet but, as Magull concedes, domestically they are now pushing beyond the rest. The German FA and clubs need to “install the right structures to be more professional”, she says. “It’s nice to see how the English league develops further in terms of the support from the league and from the clubs. We are aware of that, we have tried to make German football aware of this. We have to accelerate this progress here in Germany, we were maybe ahead but, for now, we trail them.”
Hayes believes the success of the WSL is because “the whole system has worked in tandem to raise the profile and raise the standards”, adding: “I think that’s where the rest of the world will envy what we are doing here, knowing that an industry has been created here that doesn’t exist elsewhere, that’s aligned and that’s clear on the road map.”
An English club lifting the Champions League trophy for the second time, following Arsenal’s triumph in 2006, would only add to the momentum.