When Chelsea’s season concludes, with the team almost certainly having added at least a league title to their Continental League Cup triumph, there will be plenty said and written about the players who spearheaded the charge through one of the most tumultuous of campaigns.
And rightly so. The thrusting, vibrant, relentless and creative play of Emma Hayes’s side has lit up the league. It is hard to believe that the instinctive connection developed between Fran Kirby, Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder has been established in just one season. It will only get deeper and stronger.
Kerr arrived in January 2020, Melanie Leupolz two months later, Niamh Charles last May of that year, Jessie Fleming in July and Harder in September. Hayes’s recruitment and integration of players has been exemplary.
It was in the January window prior though, wanneer, with a strong roster of goalkeepers, Hayes signed a player who on Wednesday night pulled off a string of stunning saves in the thrilling 2-2 draw with Manchester City that will surely mean her safe hands are gripped round the Women’s Super League trophy in two games’ time.
There was surprise at the recruitment of the German goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger in January 2019 because Chelsea already had the much revered Hedvig Lindahl as well as the England duo Carly Telford and Lizzie Durack (now retired) in their squad.
A frustrated Lindahl found herself phased out in favour of Berger and would announce her intention to leave the club a month before the season’s close. With a point to prove the Swedish goalkeeper earned a bronze medal at the Women’s World Cup while out of contact.
Berger struggled to settle initially and mistakes peppered her performances. But Hayes had seen something in the 30-year-old who surprisingly has just two caps for her country. The Wolfsburg keeper Almuth Schult, Merle Frohms of Eintracht Frankfurt and Laura Benkarth of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final opponents Bayern Munich were all preferred until the faith Hayes showed began to be rewarded.
This spring Berger has been sensational. Sy saved two penalties in the first leg of the last-16 Champions League game against Atlético Madrid with her team down to 10 players for much of the match and played a blinder in the first leg of their quarter-final against last season’s runners-up Wolfsburg. Asked if Berger had been among her most important signings in recent seasons, Hayes replied: “There’s no doubt.”
“I know people thought I had wonderful goalkeepers but I knew what she was capable of and I refused to let her play anywhere else. I wanted her here at this football club and she’s justified that decision and more.”
On Wednesday night, Hayes had just watched her team twice give away the lead against title rivals Manchester City before Berger, with her team under the cosh, leapt backwards and to her right to tip a point-blank clipped header from Lauren Hemp on to the bar. Berger, sekerlik, had saved the title.
“As I say time and time again, you can score goals to win games but defence wins championships and she is an unbelievable asset to the team,” Hayes said. “She’s the best goalkeeper in this country and, along with Tiane Endler [of PSG], they’re the best in the world. I think she’s improving, the more pressure, the more she responds.
“My team is extremely resilient and there’s a mentality within the dressing room that means that even when we’re not playing well someone’s going to bail us out. You can’t underestimate how valuable that is,” Hayes added, before tapping her head to emphasise the point: “You can be the best team you think in terms of possession and dominance but winning football matches is all here.”
Berger bailed Chelsea out but, as Hayes said, she was not alone. Jess Carter, who has just two league starts and five substitute appearances, was excellent up against Hemp, one of England’s best young talents, slotting into the back line when called upon in the absence of the injured right-back Maren Mjelde.
Charles, with only five starts herself, came on to add some defensive reinforcement as legs tired against the relentless Hemp. The key to Hayes’s squad is not depth in numbers but depth in quality and that is showing more and more as her forces get stretched to the limit as they continue to compete on all fronts. Next up: Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals on Sunday.