Chelsea’s Emma Hayes: ‘Lyon are the best but football isn’t that simple’

Manager has no illusions about her team’s task in Champions League semi-final but looks to Tottenham’s men, and Arsenal’s quadruple-winning women’s side, for inspiration

“It was like we were climbing against gravity in that game and I was just: ‘Put the fire out. Put the fire out. Put the fire out’,” says the Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes. “I got to the end of the game and thought: ‘I put the fire out.’”

She is talking about Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final second leg at Paris Saint-Germain. After a 2-0 home win Chelsea conceded twice in Paris but they scored in the added time to secure their passage to Sunday’s semi-final against Lyon, whose triumph in last season’s competition was their fifth.

“Anything can happen, but you must remain in it. It could have been easy to capitulate when Ann‑Katrin Berger dropped that ball in against Paris.

“Hostile atmosphere, you’ve given a goal away straight after half-time, the second goal the goalkeeper’s dropped the ball in her own net, or however it went in.”

They were heading for extra time until Maren Mjelde struck. “You ask her and she’ll tell you,” says Hayes, grinning. “I asked her: ‘Where did you get that from?’ She said: ‘I just knew I couldn’t do extra time.’”

Hayes’s firefighting efforts only strengthened her mid-game mantra of no regrets. “I’m prepared to change things. I’m not stubborn about tactics. Formations are merely numbers, it’s all about space and who is hurting us where. That’s how I view the game.

“Paris was a performance I was prepared for because I’ve been in that situation enough times to go: ‘I’m not going to let us lose the game. We can’t keep the ball. We’re horrendous in possession. I can’t do anything about that but I can certainly slow them down somehow.’”

That is what Hayes has to do against Lyon. Chelsea are “not delusional” about the task in front of them. She leaps to her feet and gives an animated 15-minute Bielsa-esque rundown of how you try to handle the threat from front to back. It is a look inside the mind of a self-confessed “maniac”: every proposition is considered, every movement agonised over. She is living this game every minute of every day.

“They’ve got full-backs that will hug the touchline. You’ve got two centre-halves who will take risks. You’ve got Kumagai, Henry and Fishlock, Marozsan who will play on the toes of the back four, and then two strikers.”

Those two strikers being the Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg, and the French forward Eugénie Le Sommer, who have nine goals between them in six Champions League games this season. There are no weaknesses.

“We have to acknowledge that they’re the best and we have to acknowledge that we’re not going to get a lot. But what I will say about my team is we always get an away goal. We have in Europe. We don’t need a lot of chances in the Champions League – the league’s a different conversation.”

“We’ve reached a point where there’s a lot of curiosity about Sunday. Everybody knows Lyon are the favourites, everybody expects Lyon to win, everybody expects Lyon to dominate, including Lyon, but as we saw last night [a reference to Manchester City v Tottenham in the men’s Champions League] football isn’t that simple.”

Hayes has been at Chelsea for almost seven years and a lot has changed. “Not one chair in this building belonged to anyone in women’s football when I first came here, let alone an office. Not a chair, not a desk, not a filing cabinet – and seven years on we now have the whole building.”

Emma Hayes: ‘I’m prepared to change things. I’m not stubborn about tactics. Formations are just numbers’
Emma Hayes: ‘I’m prepared to change things. I’m not stubborn about tactics. Formations are just numbers’ Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

This is the game Hayes has been working towards for a long time, a lot longer than her seven years in south London. “I still have a very strong relationship with Vic Akers,” she says of the former Arsenal Women manager to whom Hayes was assistant during their historic quadruple-winning season. “He has always said to me that all you can do is put yourselves in the right position. For me I feel like this preparation began in 2006.

“Were Umeå [whom Arsenal beat in the 2007 Champions League final] significantly better than Arsenal? Hell yeah. It’s probably like the difference between Lyon and Chelsea now. A team with Marta, with young Ramona Bachmann, Hanna Ljungberg – unbelievable player she was. They had experience galore in their team and they were nailed-on favourites.

“But as you saw with Tottenham [the men at Manchester City] you need some unbelievable moments to go your way, but it does happen. You need belief to do it, you certainly have to take your chances when they come round, as Tottenham did.

“We’re brave. I’m brave. I’ll do what I can to get my team to a position. I don’t want to be changing my formation three times in a game [as she did against PSG], but I certainly won’t get to the end of it and say: ‘I wish I could have, should have done that. It will be the same on Sunday.”

United secure Championship with 7-0 pummelling of Palace

Lauren James fired four goals as Manchester United clinched the Women’s Championship title by thumping Crystal Palace 7-0. United had sealed promotion by thrashing Aston Villa 5-0 on Wednesday, but still needed one more win to claim the trophy.

Casey Stoney’s rampant side wasted little time securing the silverware, adding another runaway victory to a storming campaign. United have scored 88 goals in their 18 league games, conceding seven. James, Lizzie Arnot and Leah Galton struck as United took a 3-0 lead into the break. Jessica Sigsworth continued the scoring, before James pounced three times in succession.