Chelsea became the second English club to advance to the Champions League knockout stage, joining Arsenal in securing a quarter-final place. A comfortable 4-0 victory 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 at her team’s progression, Hayes said: “I wouldn’t say ‘relief’ is the right word. This team does so well to learn in its hardest moments. We understand what the group stage is in this competition, and I think we’ve navigated it really well. Our objective now is to finish top of the group.”
A frustrating draw away to Real Madrid a week ago had ensured the Blues needed a result in Shkoder to progress. Nevertheless, Chelsea came into this encounter as clear favourites, having lost just once in their last 10 European games. Their dominance against the same opponent was evident in October when they put eight past them at Kingsmeadow.
Vllaznia made history in the summer when they became the first Albanian side, 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, suffering five defeats that will see them drop out of the competition.
Hayes has not been shy to utilise the full depth of her squad and she rang 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 made only fleeting appearances for Chelsea since September.
Another notable inclusion was that of Jelena Cankovic. Like Buchanan, the Serbian made the move to London in the summer, impressing on her first start for the club against Reading last weekend and notching a brace.
Chelsea were in control throughout, registering 708 passes to Vllaznia’s 170. The hosts did everything they could to repel the waves of attack, but a breakthrough was inevitable. With 12 minutes on the clock, Guro Reiten’s cutback was deflected into the path of captain Ingle, who dispatched a low finish with pinpoint accuracy past Kaylin Williams-Mosier.
A second goal followed shortly after through a set-piece routine that will have been familiar to viewers of the WSL. Kirby scored from a quick free-kick from Cankovic against Reading at the weekend. They found similar success here when the Serbia international caught the defence sleeping to feed Kirby once more. The hosts protested but the German referee Karoline Wacker waved them away.
Hayes had anticipated that Nikolin Leka’s side would be tougher to break down than in their first encounter and the lead remained at two goals until deep into the second half. Hayes rang the changes, making a series of substitutions to try to inject some pace into a game that had slowed considerably. Lauren James and Svitkova combined within minutes to set up Sam Kerr, but the Australian’s effort was ruled out for offside.
Chelsea were restricted to half-chances until they finally found a third when Svitkova headed home. A harsh 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 game. “We didn’t get out of second gear, but we should credit Vllaznia too as they made it difficult,” she said.
“They stuck a lot of numbers behind the ball, and you have to be patient. It’s not always the best thing to watch … but we kept our patience, probed and the finishers came into the game to add a couple of goals.”
Chelsea’s ambition will now be to secure top position in Group A. That can happen if PSG do not beat Real Madrid later this evening but, whatever happens, it is still in the Blues’ hands. They host the French side in a showdown at Stamford Bridge next week as they look to close out the group in style.