It had been an opportunity to send British women’s football to a different stratosphere. It presented the prospect of an inside squad becoming the first to take home the Champions League trophies for men and women in the same season.
But Chelsea received a brutal football lesson on Sunday evening in a devastating first half that earned Barcelona and Spain their first European title.
If there is any consolation to be found from a 45-minute period that left Emma Hayes players pondering, muscular and gasping for breath, it is in the manager, who has been on a quest to win this trophy.
Barcelona were crowned European champions with a stunning 4-0 win over Chelsea
It was a disappointing evening for Chelsea, conceding four goals in a disastrous first half
Hayes has the energy, drive and intellect to ensure that this experience will shape her team. Sir Alex Ferguson, who defeated Real Madrid here for 38 years to win the Cup Winners Cup with Aberdeen, always regarded setbacks as the most important events.
Hayes also couldn’t have legislated for the kind of night her forward Pernille Harder experienced, knocking down four chances, including a shot over the bar at 1-0, which could have changed everything. The course of the night could also have been different without the knee injury that robbed Hayes from right back Maren Mjelde.
The manager realized in the aftermath that the way her party had been taken by surprise was not a reflection of their competence. ‘We’re better than that, so to turn around in areas where we coached them not to [is hard to take],’ she said. ‘Being bullied. We are better than that. The physicality in our competition – we have it. ‘
But it was not for nothing that the bookies preferred Barcelona. The club may not have spent anything last summer with Chelsea paying a world record fee for Harder, but they have built something very substantial.
A club whose teams are all imbued with the Cruyff philosophy and have made individual player fitness programs a priority since a 4-1 destruction by Lyon in the 2019 final, underscored a physical deficit they knew had to be matched. That final has haunted Barcelona ever since.
It was Chelsea who learned what the experience felt like here. For young fullbacks Niamh Charles and Jess Carter, who had a hard time in the tough first half, leaving the team four goals behind, this will require some recovery.
Chelsea got off to a disastrous start when Melanie Leupolz scored an own goal after just one minute
Alexia Putellas fired in a penalty kick, leaving Barca in control for just 14 minutes in the final
Barca captain Putellas celebrates after giving a 2-0 lead in Gothenburg on Sunday
The duel of Lieke Martens of the Spanish left against Charles, who had been excellent in the semi-final, was particularly brutal.
Across the field, Carter, selected for Jonna Andersson, was humiliated time and again by Caroline Graham Hansen. There was still a big difference in central midfield. Hayes’s side just couldn’t take control.
Barcelona ripped out of the blocks in a way that shook Chelsea and was unable to know what hit them. The game was barely 30 seconds old when Martens drove away from Charles and a shot curled up against the crossbar.
Chelsea couldn’t organize themselves when the ball fell and after a series of pinball football, the ball fell to Fran Kirby, whose attempt at clearance bounced back to Melanie Leupolz.
It was an accident and yet a serious premonition of the Spanish threat. Barcelona was just faster in action and was thinking.
Aitana Bonmati completed a slick move to get Barca’s third after just 20 minutes
The defenders were unable to keep up with their sharp, precise possession exchanges as they trailed 3-0 within an opening half-hour, effectively killing the game.
Martens’ threat was particularly cruel. Exposing the high defensive position Mille Bright had taken in 14 minutes, she rushed to Chelsea’s third place, sending Caroline Graham Hansen blasting through the threat from Jess Carter.
The Norwegian sparked even more panic by going back to Jenni Hermoso, who was caught by Leupolz’s standing leg to secure the penalty kick that captain Alexia Putellas dived.
Hayes felt that the coincidence of the opening minutes had to be compensated.
“One is an own goal and the second is a penalty and it was a tough fight from there,” she said. ‘It makes it hard to force yourself if the other team has the momentum to be in 2-0  minutes. ‘
Caroline Graham Hansen completed Chelsea’s misery with a fourth for half time
But Martens again demonstrated her superiority for the third, racing to the by-line to trigger a one-touch goal with a pretty nice geometry.
Hermoso relaxed a pass back for Putellas, whose precision fist-time ball, punched through the lines, found the darting move of Aitana Bonmati pulling Ann-Katrin Berger and rolling the ball in through her legs.
Martens defeated Charles again for the fourth and cut back from the byline for Graham Hansen who was faster to the ball to poke Charles.
This was the same ‘carousel’ that made Ferguson look so lost after his Manchester United side’s defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at Wembley a decade ago this month. Hayes’ options were limited.
The Barça festivities were long before they started full-time, and Chelsea couldn’t fight back
It was a bitterly disappointing evening for Emma Hayes and her Chelsea squad in Gothenburg
Guro Reiten, who arrived for Leupolz after the break, offered support to suppress Martens. Charles regained its balance and Chelsea showed signs of recovery.
But Harder somehow managed to turn down another chance after Reiten’s free kick yielded an elemental header. An exercise to limit the damage was the best if it could be.
“We are the second best team in Europe,” Hayes said last night. “Most of those players have never played on that stage before and those young players are only getting better.”
It will recover and launch another attack on Europe, although it will take time to absorb all of this.