Chelsea poised to deliver the unthinkable for Emma Hayes as Champions League progress clear

It felt like a full-circle moment.

As the Chelsea players stood in the Spanish sunshine, warmed by the adulation of the travelling support, it was hard to escape the feeling that this was a karmic, cosmic event - one that had been brewing ever since that gut-wrenching Champions League final defeat in Gothenburg some three years ago.

On that occasion, Barcelona were imperious, romping into a 4-0 first-half lead without even having to break a sweat. Chelsea looked, for all their domestic dominance, like a team stunned by their own mortality, unable to provide any answers to the Catalans' incessant barrage of questions.

As the two sides faced off in the semi-finals of the competition on Saturday, though, it was clear the Blues had done their homework. They stunted and stifled a Barcelona team that has scored more than a century of goals in Liga F this season, reducing them to one solitary shot on target and sending one of the most formidable defences on the continent into disarray.

When Chelsea captain Erin Cuthbert gave the visitors the lead at the Estadi Olímpic, it felt like the gauntlet had been thrown down. It was only 40 minutes into the two-legged tie and yet it already felt like a small victory for Emma Hayes' side, almost as if if they were warning the European champions: "We're here, we don't fear you and we're coming for your crown."

When, at the full-time whistle, defender Jess Carter was presented with the Player of the Match Award, it felt as if the universe had conspired to serve up a slice of poetic justice. One of only two starting XI survivors from that miserable night in Sweden, the England international was the best player on the pitch in Catalonia and looked a million miles away from the overawed young player who had looked totally out of her depth at the Gamla Ullevi.

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It was Barcelona's first home defeat since February 2019 and the first time they have failed to score since April 2022. But, while the magnitude of the result was impossible to refute, there was a palpable sense that this was only a job half-done for Chelsea, with the west Londoners braced for a big response when the teams meet at Stamford Bridge next weekend.

“I’m not here to break records, no disrespect to Barcelona, but that’s not a trophy for me,” Hayes said after the game. “We’re here to compete for the Champions League and we’re at half-time against the best team in the world, who didn’t have their best game today.”

The Chelsea boss is right to urge caution. You would have to go back to May 2022 to find the last time Jonatan Giráldez's side lost consecutive games, although both of those defeats did come in Europe.

For all of the Blues' brilliance in the first leg, Barcelona can perhaps consider it unlucky that they failed to find the back of the net. Two-time Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas unbelievably fired wide from just a few yards out in stoppage time, while the hosts will have felt aggrieved to see VAR overturn the awarding of a penalty for handball by Kadeisha Buchanan after Salma Paralluelo was found to be offside in the build-up.

"If the VAR has marked this, we can't do anything," Barcelona star Aitana Bonmati told Spanish outlet Mundo Deportivo. "I am not in favour of playing with these interruptions, but we knew it. We had talked about Chelsea playing like this, which for me is playing dirty. We have warned the referee, but it is not up to us if they allow it. We have to know how to play with it."

It might sound like sour grapes from the current Ballon d'Or holder but her comments offer an insight into the mood within the Barcelona camp ahead of next weekend's game. The Catalans feel wronged and will do everything in their power to avenge that perceived injustice when they travel to London in just a few short days' time.

And, Giráldez's side don't have to look too far to find the blueprint for success at Stamford Bridge. It was only last year they secured a precious 1-0 semi-final win in SW6 thanks to Caroline Graham Hansen's early strike - a result which, when coupled with a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture at the Camp Nou, was enough to secure Barcelona's passage into the final.

Everyone of a Chelsea persuasion will know the Catalans are more than capable of repeating that feat again. That Hayes has called on Blues fans to sell out the Bridge on Saturday is proof enough of that.

“It’s essential, we’ve watched many clubs sell stadiums in the biggest games,” the Chelsea boss said. “Our girls deserve it. They deserve to play in front of a full house to give ourselves the best possible chance because we are going to need them. Barcelona will throw absolutely everything at us.”

With the Blues having seen their hopes of a quadruple go up in smoke in recent weeks following their Conti Cup final defeat to Arsenal and FA Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Manchester United, it feels like it is next weekend's match that will define the club's season. When you consider this is Chelsea's last opportunity to win the Champions League - the one trophy which has always eluded them - with Hayes at the helm, it is hard to shake the feeling that Barcelona's trip to west London will represent the biggest game in the Blues' recent history.

"We understand the team and the opponent," Hayes said. "They are world class with unbelievable players but I’m not thinking about fairytales."

Of course, the Chelsea boss - who will depart to become manager of the US Women's national team at the end of the season - was never going to make it about her. She, perhaps more so than anyone, is well-acquainted with the kind of damage Barcelona can inflict on anyone who dares to take their foot off the gas.

But, as the clock ticks down on her stellar Chelsea career, the Blues will surely now feel, more strongly than ever, that they are well-positioned to give Hayes her dream ending.

The second leg will be played on Saturday, April 27 at Stamford Bridge which you can watch live on DAZN.

You can watch back the first leg of Lyon vs Paris Saint-Germain in the other semi-final on DAZN, here.