Chelsea Ladies look to put their stamp on Women's Champions League
LONDON -- Antonio Conte might have watched his Champions League dreams shattered by the brilliance of Lionel Messi at Camp Nou earlier this month, but Chelsea's hopes of European glory will be very much alive at Kingsmeadow on Wednesday night.
Chelsea Ladies have already made history by surging deeper into the Women's Champions League than ever before, and stand to write more as they attempt to build on a 2-0 lead over Montpellier Feminines in the second leg of their quarterfinal tie.
Should they win and Manchester City -- who have also earned a 2-0 first-leg lead -- eliminate Swedish champions Linköping, England will boast two semifinalists in Europe's elite club competition for the first time.
"I hope for ours and City's sake that we both progress," said Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, voicing the kind of utilitarian attitude that would be startlingly out of place in the men's game, where the notion of the greater good never supersedes entrenched club loyalties and interests.
"It used to be Swedes dominating this competition, along with the French and the Germans. That's no longer the case. We're talking about two English teams getting to the stages that we've worked hard for and if both of us manage to do that, it's a monumental achievement to celebrate."
Just as in the youth and senior ranks of the men's game, recent years have seen Chelsea and City find in each other their biggest obstacle to domestic dominance of women's football. Having split the last three Women's Super League titles (two for Chelsea, one for City) they are currently separated by two points at the top of the table, and will also meet in the FA Women's Cup semifinals next month.
Yet the contempt that such familiarity often breeds is noticeably absent from their rivalry. Instead there is mutual respect for the leading role that both clubs are playing in the growth of the WSL, as well as England's impressive rise up the international rankings.
"There's a lot of communication between the two clubs about where we want to be, and how to drive the women's game on," Chelsea captain Katie Chapman added. "We're the two advocates for the women's game, we're the two top teams in the league and it's important that we show that rivalry, that competitiveness. You need to aim higher, and we want to improve our league as a whole."
Last week Hayes and City manager Nick Cushing spoke out in unison about the need for the Football Association to address an increasingly packed fixture list to minimise the risk of player burnout and injury, and on Monday they shared their concerns in greater detail with each other on the phone.
"It's a source of frustration for both of us," the Chelsea boss reiterated.
Hayes is a charismatic communicator, punctuating thoughtful answers with relevant statistics, as well as dashes of humour that never undercut the sincere passion with which she talks about her team and her sport. She is also an exceptional coach, with a winning pedigree forged under Vik Akers during Arsenal's golden era that has helped her convert considerable resources into a consistent stream of silverware at Chelsea.
Arsenal were the last English club to win the Women's Champions League -- when it was called the UEFA Women's Cup -- in 2007. Hayes was assistant manager while the squad featured current Chelsea stars Chapman, Karen Carney, Anita Asante, Gilly Flaherty and Gemma Davison.
"I always remember Vik saying to me at Arsenal that this isn't a competition you win quickly," Hayes recalled. "It's something that takes about five or six years. I walked into an Arsenal dressing room at the time that won it in the first season I was there, so I couldn't really appreciate it then. I do now."
Should they see off Montpellier, Chelsea's semifinal opponents will be German giants Wolfsburg, the team that has knocked them out of this competition in each of the last two seasons. City will also be underdogs against defending champions Lyon, but Hayes is confident that the European landscape is shifting.
"There will come a time when it will happen for English teams, whether that be us, Arsenal or Manchester City," she insisted.
"The difference at this stage is experience. Lyon and Wolfsburg still have that in abundance. But on any given day you can get a result, and I think Wolfsburg fear Chelsea more than they ever have, just as Lyon fear Manchester City more than ever. It's just are we ready now for that to happen?"
Even if the wait goes on, the broader trajectory is encouraging. Chelsea expect a record attendance in excess of 3,000 at Kingsmeadow on Wednesday, while improved standards have sparked an increase in the profile and appeal of the women's game across the board.
One striking consequence is that Manchester United, after years of baffling resistance, last week finally applied to enter a women's team into the WSL 2 for the 2018/19 season.
"If we're going to be the best league in the world, we're going to need the best brands associated with it," Hayes continued. "I know behind the scenes we've played an active part in educating them about the set-up, about the running of a team at this level. I'm a big fan and advocate of what they're doing, and a proponent of supporting it rather than criticising what they haven't done up until now."
United have a long way to go if they want to join Chelsea and City as perennial domestic contenders and rising European powers. Chapman calls the Montpellier game the biggest in the team's history for all that it represents, and she knows that the underachievement of Conte's men has given the ladies an opportunity to lead the way.
"We're one club here at Chelsea, men and women," she insisted. "We want the men to be successful, and if they're not then we want to drive it. Any success for Chelsea is success, whether it's for the men or the women."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.