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On the face of it, the two UWCL semi-finals are finely balanced
Barcelona (1) v Chelsea (0)
Chelsea arrive at the Camp Nou tonight with a mountain to climb. In the first leg at Stamford Bridge, their performance was credible if uninspiring. Despite going a goal behind to a Caroline Graham Hansen strike after only four minutes, Chelsea dug in to ensure there was no meltdown as there was in Gothenburg in the final two years ago.
In fact, Chelsea restricted Barcelona to their lowest expected goals all season (as per FBRef). But the cost of defending was a very limited attack. With Guro Reiten and Sam Kerr playing in a front two, the aim was for Kerr to win aerial duels and knock the ball down for Reiten to run onto.
It was enough of a threat to keep Mapi Leon and Lucy Bronze both pinned pretty far back. Leon’s goal against Roma in the quarter-final told you everything you need to know about how much the central-defender likes to push up, at times becoming an auxiliary midfielder. But a half-time substitution saw Lauren James partner Kerr with Reiten moving back into midfield, and whatever the rejigged attacking plan was for Chelsea, it did not come to fruition.
Barcelona have been imperious in their Camp Nou matches. The possibility of Chelsea getting a win, let alone a win by two clear goals, feels highly unlikely. Given Hayes felt like she had to pack the midfield to defend, Chelsea were unable to attack in behind Barcelona’s fullbacks, often the route to goal that looks most promising. So even with Lucy Bronze’s absence, Hayes would have to sacrifice some of her Stamford Bridge structure to make the most of it.
The return of Pernille Harder might offer some hope - Harder playing in a front two with Kerr would feel much more dynamic and aggressive - but whether Chelsea risk starting her is unclear. Meanwhile, Alexia Putellas will be in Barcelona’s squad and surely the opportunity to give her minutes at Camp Nou will be too great to resist. The emotion around Alexia’s return could prove overwhelming.
More crucial might be the fact that Mariona Caldentey could be able to start. When she came on at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea found it a lot harder to keep track of than they had Salma Paralluelo. The way Mariona cuts inside centrally makes her much more difficult to mark as she opens up space for Fridolina Rolfö to run in behind.
Ultimately, Chelsea will have to go for it at Camp Nou. Barcelona’s losses to Lyon and Bayern Munich have shown that they can concede in quick succession, but both matches were away games. The fear will be that by attacking more, Chelsea will open themselves up to being ground down by the Barcelona machine in the blaugrana cauldron like so many teams before.
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Arsenal (2) v Wolfsburg (2)
Honestly Wolfsburg must be kicking themselves that this tie isn’t dead and buried. Instead Arsenal feel like the favourites having come back from 2-0 down to get themselves a draw in Germany. The first half goals from Ewa Pajor and Sveindis Jonsdottir showed a team uncertain in their formation shift with Jonas Eidevall reverting to a back three as he has done at a variety of points this season. At points Arsenal’s build up play looked stilted, repeatedly trying to get the ball in behind Lynn Wilms at right back to little success.
Wolfsburg meanwhile felt very narrow. Arsenal’s injury list is astonishing but Wolfsburg have had problems of their own with Tommy Stroot forced to play winger Jule Brand in midfield as Alex Popp and Lena Lattwein watched on from the stands. Brand was pretty anonymous and whilst Jonsdottir’s drifting off the left hand side seemed to leave Arsenal confused, it also meant that the central areas became very congested.
Arsenal got back into the game thanks to a header from Rafaelle at a corner just before half time and suddenly it felt like the comeback queens would be at it again. Their move for the second goal was fantastic with a Lotte Wubben-Moy pass demolishing Wolfsburg’s attempts at playing an offside trap allowing Victoria Pelova to simply square the ball for Stina Blackstenius to tap in.
Wolfsburg seemed so shocked that they had given up their lead that they had almost no response, managing only one shot on target after the equaliser. Given the record crowd that will be assembled at the Emirates, it is hard to look past Arsenal getting the win and reaching a first UWCL final since 2007 when they won. Their comebacks have continued with a growing belief that if they stay calm and stick to the plan, they will find a way through. Of course it is easier to point to the moments where it did happen than those it didn’t - there was little in the way of comeback in the league against Manchester United after all - but there is more than enough muscle memory of it in this Arsenal side now.
Not all of these comebacks for Arsenal feel sustainable. Some, like the Continental Cup final and in the two legs against Bayern Munich, were fully deserved wins where they far outperformed their opponent. Others, as against Manchester City in the WSL, felt more like riding their luck to stay in the game and taking a handful of chances. The first leg against Wolfsburg seemed closer to that latter category. But with the tie in the balance as it is, it is hard to imagine Arsenal not persevering.