The 2021 Champions League final was supposed to be Chelsea’s crowning glory after several years of domestic domination. Instead, it turned into a complete nightmare as Barcelona ran riot in Gothenburg to deservedly lift the trophy for the first time themselves.
Barça were unstoppable from the moment 2017 Best FIFA women’s player Lieke Martens hit the bar in the opening 20 seconds and took the lead thanks to a freak own goal in the ensuing melee.
The Spanish champions doubled their advantage as a result of a soft penalty, but their swarming press suffocated Chelsea’s array of stars throughout, while their quick passing and high tempo attacking made it difficult to get near them. A 4-0 half-time lead didn’t flatter them.
Barça eased up after the interval, allowing Chelsea to improve, although 4-0 was how it stayed.
This was no fluke from Barça, rather the culmination of a journey of their own. Two years earlier, they themselves had been humiliated in the Champions League final by a dominant Lyon. On that occasion it was 4-0 after half an hour and Ada Hegerberg scored a 17-minute hat-trick.
Barça had already been where Chelsea were on Sunday night. But they regrouped after that 2019 humbling, learned invaluable lessons from the experience and became so much stronger for it, to the point where they were able to dish out the same punishment they had once received.
The majority of the 2019 Barça team returned in 2021 and there will be no need for Chelsea and Emma Hayes to tear it down and start afresh in the quest for European glory. Emotions are raw now, but this temporary setback can serve as an important stepping stone to eventually get there.
The squad will have to be tweaked in key positions, just as Barça’s was after 2019 – Jenni Hermoso and Caroline Graham Hansen both arrived that very summer – but a strong core of Chelsea players capable of winning the Champions League is already in place.
Emma Hayes was an assistant coach when Arsenal won the UEFA Women’s Cup, as the Champions League was previously known, in 2007 and her thirst to build a team at Chelsea capable of matching that has been there since day one and will only be stronger now that she has been so close.
“I think [Hayes] set this vision a long time ago, back in 2012 when she arrived, to become a competitive, title-winning team in Europe,” former Chelsea and England striker Eniola Aluko told 90min in the build up to the final.
“Emma Hayes has constantly talked about the Champions League. I think after the first time we played in the Champions League in 2015 it’s been aim ever since to keep growing in the competition.”
That enduring vision won't have changed in light of Sunday's defeat.