Emma Hayes described the expansion of the Women’s Champions League next season as brilliant and said the extra place for an English club would “add kudos to our league”, as she prepared Chelsea to play Atlético Madrid in the last 16 first leg on Wednesday.
After qualifiers the tournament proper begins 32 teams but from next season two rounds of qualifying will be followed by a group stage of 16. England’s status as one of the top six countries in Europe means a third club from the Women’s Super League will compete in the tournament for the first time. A maximum of one of those clubs will go straight into the group stage.
On Wednesday Manchester City play at home to Fiorentina in the first leg of their last-16 tie, before Chelsea welcome Atlético to Kingsmeadow. Hayes, a vocal advocate of expansion, missed out on qualification for last season’s tournament after Chelsea finished third and says the change is important for the growth of the English game.
“This is brilliant,” she said. “This is the step that everyone has worked towards. I’m happy to think that three teams will qualify from England. That will add even more kudos to our league and will keep the right amount of investment going into clubs..”
The Chelsea and England centre-back Millie Bright welcomes the change of format. “It shows we’re doing what we need to be doing to grow the game and it’s definitely exciting to be having groups,” she said. “I’m really happy that the top three now go in; we definitely have the quality in the WSL to add that third team. I’m proud of the women’s game for the journey that we’ve come on.”
Chelsea have twice reached the semi-finals, losing to Wolfsburg in 2018 and Lyon in 2019, and Bright believes that with their signings, particularly the European player of the year, Pernille Harder, they are ready to take the next step.
“We’ve got all the ingredients,” she said. “We just have to put words into action now and get the job done. They’ve got a lot of experience in the Champions League, Pernille especially. You learn from those players. That’s the added bit, the experience we didn’t have.”
Bright and Hayes, though, are not looking too far ahead. “Everybody around Europe is probably loving the kind of pressure that’s being put on Chelsea … while Manchester City are not being spoken about,” said Hayes, who warned against complacency when facing Atlético. “For them to knock Man City out two years running? They’ve got qualities. They are a great cup side.”
City’s manager, Gareth Taylor, was inclined to agree that the focus on Chelsea had lifted the pressure on City in the competition. “But we put ourselves under pressure,” he said. “When you work or play for a big club like City, we’re expected to be there and we want to be there.”
Fiorentina lost 6-0 on aggregate to Arsenal in the last 32 last season and are struggling domestically. They are fifth in Serie A, 16 points from Champions League qualification. City, like Chelsea, have added experience: the three-times Champions League winner Lucy Bronze, another winner Alex Greenwood and World Cup winners Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle.
“We’re good enough to win it,” Taylor said. “There’s been quite a bit of change. Whichever game we go out to play, we go out to win, we go out to impose our game on the opposition. Regardless of what happens tomorrow, I don’t think the tie will be over.”