Chelsea Women started their UEFA Women’s Champions League campaign on an undesirable note as they drew 2-2 against Real Madrid at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.
The four-goal thriller provided ample entertainment but the game was marred by questionable refereeing decisions, which saw a stoppage-time potential Chelsea winner controversially ruled out for offside.
Emma Hayes made two changes to the starting XI that beat Everton 3-0 last Sunday, replacing Eve Perisset and Jelena Čanković with Ashley Lawrence and Fran Kirby.
Both sides showed signs of their footballing pedigree in the opening minutes, playing dangerous-looking crosses and through balls, but neither goalkeeper was tested.
With the quality on show, it was not long before the ball was in the back of the net, but unfortunately for The Blues, it was theirs.
A poor Chelsea clearance found Claudia Zornoza who played it to Olga Cormona who, after a couple of strides, unleashed a shot from outside the box which took a significant deflection off Millie Bright, leading it to sail uncontested into the goal. It was the first goal Chelsea had conceded since October 22.
Despite going a goal down, the away side continued to attack the Real Madrid net. Shortly after the goal, a Jesse Flemming cross dribbled across the six-yard box, but neither Sam Kerr nor Fran Kirby were able to get a foot to it.
Kerr would come closest to equalising, but her wonderfully struck volley was saved at the near post by Misa Rodriguez.
As the first half continued, Real Madrid maintained their high-energy pressing, with Real constantly pressing the Chelsea keeper Katherine Berger, leading to a couple of instances where she had to hastily clear the ball in fear of being dispossessed by a charging Los Blancos attacker.
Midfielder, Erin Cuthbert was key for Chelsea’s attacking play in the first half, with her short passes linking defence and attack, as well as utilising her playmaking ability to deliver well-placed crosses into the Real Madrid box. Unfortunately for Cuthbert, none of her teammates were able to convert these chances, which was starting to become a theme for The Blues.
Fortunately for Chelsea, this theme ended abruptly as Lawrence deceived her marker with an effective piece of skill at the edge of the penalty box, and then proceeded to play an inch-perfect cross to Niamh Charles who was able to head the ball into the net at the back post.
Chelsea carried this attacking momentum into the final minutes but were unable to capitalise, meaning the teams went into the break with a goal each.
The Blues came out of the blocks the quickest, with a Kerr effort striking the side netting after an excellent Jess Carter through-ball.
Real Madrid did not bother Chelsea as much in the early stages of the second half, but the flashes of quality they displayed let the visitors know they could not let their guard drop.
Despite this, The Blues continued to push forward but the Los Blancos defence were on top form as the second half continued, successfully halting a number of attacks.
After 20 minutes of not particularly testing the Chelsea defence, an Athenea del Castillo strike, which was thwarted by a Niamh Charles block, seemed to reinvigorate both the Real team and their fans.
However, Chelsea quickly stamped out this newfound optimism when a Charles cross was met by a towering Kerr header to put the visitors 2-1 up with 15 minutes left.
Yet, when Real Madrid seemed down and out, the game took another turn as a poorly timed tackle by Jesse Flemming just outside then 18-yard box led to a penalty controversially being awarded to the home side. Cormona struck the ball into the right side of Chelsea’s goal, despite Berger guessing the direction correctly.
The home side looked set to immediately secure a third, but Jess carter was able to neatly dispossess Linda Caicedo after a darting run into the box. The Blues responded to this by hitting Real Madrid with a barrage of attacks, but a number of superb saves by Rodriguez meant the game remained all square.
As the game entered injury time a new level of intensity was reached, as both teams searched for a winning goal. Chelsea substitute Lauren James came close, but her looping, long-range effort struck the bar after beating the Real keeper.
As the final minute of stoppage time ticked over, the away side thought they had scored a winner when Charles cooly placed the ball into the Madrid net after bringing down a Bright long-ball. However, their celebrations were cut short when the goal was disallowed due to the assistant referee flagging Charles for offside, despite the Chelsea player being safely onside when Bright played the pass.
The final whistle then blew, with the game finishing 2-2, and both teams starting their UWCL group stage campaign with a point.
Whilst it was an achievement for Chelsea to come back from 1-0 down early on in the game, Hayes will surely be disappointed that her final UWCL campaign with Chelsea has not got off to the best start.
The game also raised questions regarding officiating in the women’s game. Many fans on social media pointed out the need for a Video Assistant Referee in the UWCL with the idea being that this would reduce the number of seemingly unjust decisions.
Chelsea return home to Stamford Bridge on Saturday where they play Liverpool in the Barclays Women’s Super League. Their UWCL campaign continues next Thursday when they welcome Paris FC to the Bridge.