Battling, bruised and almost beaten. The goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger was the hero, seven months after announcing the return of her thyroid cancer and ongoing treatment, making two saves in the penalty shootout as Chelsea booked a place in the Champions League semi-finals at the expense of the European champions, Lyon.
The Blues had pulled the aggregate score with the French side level with the last kick in extra time. It had seemed that Sara Däbritz’s extra-time strike would be enough to put the eight-time winners Lyon into the final four after Vanessa Gilles’s second-half goal cancelled out the slender advantage Guro Reiten’s strike had given Chelsea in the first leg. But Lauren James was deemed to have been felled by Vicki Becho after a VAR check and Maren Mjelde’s penalty levelled the score.
The 128th-minute goal to level the tie was a tough one for Lyon to take, particularly as Lyon manager Sonia Bompastor felt aggrieved at the referee’s decision.
“Disappointment, frustration, injustice,” insisted Bompastor. “My girls played the game we wanted from them, they stuck to the gameplan, they played with their hearts, they played with their heads. We showed a lot more than we had done as a team in the first leg back in Lyon. To be a side capable of being 2-0 up with very little time left at a place like Stamford Bridge shows what a good performance it was.
“I think the referee made the right decision live, if you like, and then she was obliged by VAR to go and take a look. We know once they’ve been called over, it’s tough for them to go against what VAR thought. Chelsea by the end were resorting to getting it launched, hoping for a second ball. James had the opportunity, she fell, that’s cool, but I still feel it wasn’t a penalty and the wrong decision has been made overall.”
It was the final action of the game and, after four penalties were scored in the shootout, Berger saved Wendie Renard’s spot-kick only for Lauren James’s effort to be also pushed away by Christiane Endler. It came down to the final kick and Berger saved Lindsey Horan’s effort to give Chelsea a 4-3 shootout victory, set up a semi-final with Barcelona and send the rapt home crowd into ecstasy, disbelief spilling from every pore.
“She’s someone who really thrives in big moments,” said Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, of Berger. “She’s probably the best pen-saving goalkeeper I’ve worked with. Every day everyone hates going up against her.”
Hayes had said prior to the match that her team relished the prospect of being “in a position where we can impose ourselves in our stadium the way that we want to”.
Unfortunately, the reigning European champions had other ideas. It was a blistering start from the visiting side, who went in search of the goal that would put them level in the tie.
Within five minutes Lyon had carved the Blues open three times. It was a rough opening spell, but Chelsea weathered it. There were four changes to the Lyon starting lineup from the first leg at the Groupama stadium.
The Champions League record goalscorer, Ada Hegerberg, was on the bench again but this time with minutes under her belt, having scored within sixty seconds of coming on as a substitute against Guingamp in the 70th minute.
There were two changes for Chelsea, too. Millie Bright was not in the matchday squad despite Hayes’s insistence that she was fine after an injury suffered in the first leg, while Erin Cuthbert started ahead of Sophie Ingle.
Despite Lyon’s rapid start the first half evened out, with the home team edging possession and creating chances. James was integral to their positive spells. In the 16th minute she broke free on the right before sending the ball between the legs of Renard to Sam Kerr. She raced through the middle but Endler did well to come out quickly and blocked the shot of the Australian forward with her face.
James would go close herself, dancing her way free of two defenders on the left and then lashing goalwards, forcing a fine save from Endler who read the flight of the ball well.
Both teams were finding holes in somewhat shaky backlines and the ever-potent Kerr was, by her standards, wasteful. With the game still goalless at the break, it was time for Lyon’s manager, Sonia Bompastor, to release their not so wild card, with Hegerberg entering in place of Bruun.
It was a much more sluggish start to the second half, which suited Chelsea. A long stoppage as blood poured from the nose of Melanie Leupolz after she was caught by Daniëlle van de Donk’s arm slowed the game further.
The game had wilted and Lyon were creating little of substance, but a goal can always come from nothing and that’s exactly what happened. Horan collected the ball on the right and sent a low cross towards the near post where Gilles was on hand to steer it between Berger’s flailing arm and knee. It was poor from the keeper but she would more than make up for it.
If Chelsea needed their 12th player, it arrived, the crowd roaring to life. The Blues were buoyed by the new energy but neither team could find the goal to win it in normal time.
Extra time was energetic yet the players looked shattered, pushing past pain, playing on adrenaline, but struggling to create. Dzsenifer Marozsan and Perle Morroni entered the fray as Lyon introduced fresh legs from their far superior bench.
It was Hegerberg though, who would not have been ready to play as many minutes as she did, who sent the ball towards Däbritz to fire in.
There were screams for a Chelsea penalty late on after James fell to the grass. Contact was minimal but after a VAR review the referee, Ivana Martincic, pointed to the spot and Mjelde stepped up to smash it in. It was the final kick of extra time. Berger saved twice in the shootout, from Renard and Horan, with only James’s effort blocked by Endler, ensuring an exhausted Chelsea kept their dreams of a first Champions League title alive.
“It was the most character-building performance, even if it was the ugliest,” said Hayes.
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