champions-league

Chelsea slipped past Vllaznia and into the round of 16 of the Women’s Champions League

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Chelsea became the second English club to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League, joining Arsenal in securing a quarter-final place. A comfortable 4-0 win over Vllaznia in Albania saw Emma Hayes’ side qualify with a game to spare, putting the demons of last season to bed. First-half goals from Sophie Ingle and Fran Kirby set the tone, before a late header from Katerina Svitkova and Maren Mjelde’s injury-time penalty rounded off the scoring.

Asked if she was relieved by her team’s progress, Hayes said: “I wouldn’t say ‘relief’ is the right word. This team does so well to learn in the hardest moments. We understand what the group stage is in this competition and I think we’ve navigated it really well. Our goal now is to finish at the top of the group.”

Related: Vllaznia 0-4 Chelsea: Women’s Champions League – as it happened

A frustrating draw away to Real Madrid a week ago had ensured the Blues needed a result in Shkoder to advance. Nevertheless, Chelsea came into this meeting as clear favourites, having lost just once in their last 10 European matches. Their dominance against the same opposition was evident in October when they put eight past them at Kingsmeadow.

Vllaznia made history this summer when they became the first Albanian team, men’s or women’s, to reach the last 16 of a European competition in 33 years. Unsurprisingly, they have found the group stage tough as they have gone toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite and have suffered five defeats that will see them drop out of the competition.

Paris Saint Germain defeated Real Madrid 2-1 to secure qualification from Group A at the expense of their opponents. Both sides hit the woodwork early on before Élisa de Almeida (pictured) headed home from a corner to put the hosts in front.

Real Madrid hit the frame of the goal twice more through Sandie Toletti and Athenea del Castillo, and were punished for their wastefulness on the hour. Ashley Lawrence was brought down in the area and Kadidiatou Diani converted the penalty.

Real pulled one back through Claudio Zornoza but could not repeat their run to last season’s quarter-finals, while PSG can still top Group A with at least a two-goal win at Chelsea in their last game.

In group B, Rome left it late to secure their quarter-final spot, with four of their five goals coming in the final eight minutes against St. Polten. Annamaria Serturini had put Roma in front at the interval after a rain-interrupted first half.

The score remained that way until the 82nd minute, before doubles from Benedetta Glionna and Manuela Giugliano turned a 1-0 lead into a 5-0 victory. Wolfsburg‘s surprising 0-0 draw at home to Slavia Prague also means that the Italians can still claim top spot in the group.

Hayes hasn’t been shy about utilizing the full depth of her team, and she dialed in the changes again. The one constant throughout this European campaign has been the inclusion of Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan in central defence. With Millie Bright and Magdalena Eriksson rested, she was joined by Aniek Nouwen. It was the 23-year-old’s first start in Europe this season, having featured only fleetingly for Chelsea since September.

Another notable inclusion was Jelena Cankovic. Like Buchanan, the Serbian moved to London this summer, where she impressed on her first start for the club against Reading last weekend and pulled off a brace.

Chelsea were in control throughout, registering 708 passes to Vllaznia’s 170. The hosts did all they could to repel the attacking waves, but a breakthrough was inevitable. With 12 minutes on the clock, Guro Reiten’s cutback was deflected into the box by captain Ingle, who sent a low finish with great accuracy past Kaylin Williams-Mosier.

Chelsea players in a huddle after the match after the final whistle in Shkoder. Photo: Florion Goga/Reuters

A second goal followed soon after through a set-piece routine that will have been familiar to viewers of the WSL. Kirby scored from a quick Cankovic free-kick against Reading at the weekend. They found similar success here as the Serbia international caught the defense napping to feed Kirby once more. The hosts protested, but German referee Karoline Wacker waved them off.

Hayes had reckoned that Nikolin Leka’s side would be harder to break down than in their first meeting and the lead remained at two goals until deep into the second half. Hayes rang the changes and made a number of substitutions to try and inject some pace into a game that had slowed down a lot. Lauren James and Svitkova combined within minutes to set up Sam Kerr, but the Australian’s effort was ruled out for offside.

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Chelsea were limited to half chances until they finally found a third when Svitkova headed home. A hard penalty for handball against Sara Maliqi in stoppage time was converted by Mjelde to round off the scoring.

Hayes was keen to credit Vllaznia’s resilience after the match. “We didn’t get out of second gear, but we should also credit Vllaznia as they made it difficult,” she said.

“They put a lot of numbers behind the ball and you have to be patient. It’s not always the best to watch … but we kept our patience, tried and the finishers came into the game to add a couple of goals.”

Chelsea’s ambition will now be to close the group stage in style by topping Group A. That is in their own hands despite PSG’s win over Real Madrid, and will be achieved if they avoid defeat to the French side in their clash at Stamford Bridge next time. Thursday.

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