Tomorrow, Chelsea will face French giants Lyon in the first leg of the UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-final. And although we can expect a full Parc Olympique Lyonnais, with fans from across the globe also tuning in to watch two of the games biggest teams go head-to-head, it's next week's Stamford Bridge fixture that will get hearts racing.
Chelsea will take on eight-time Champions League winners Lyon at Stamford Bridge on March 30. France's most successful team in women’s football history will face England’s most dominant side in a decade. Fans know there’s nothing better than watching Europe’s best players battle it out under the lights on UWCL nights, but this quarter-final is going to take things up a notch as Emma Hayes and her Blue Army set their sights on the continent’s most coveted prize. The missing piece in Chelsea’s trophy-laden Cobham cabinet.
It might have been two years since the Blues were crowned runners-up after Barcelona claimed their first-ever Champions League title, but a lot can change over the course of two seasons and 2023 might just be Chelsea’s year. With five-time European Champion and former Lyon defender Kadeisha Buchanan bringing some serious experience and insight to the side, alongside three of the club’s key players from the 2020/21 final: Magdalena Eriksson, Melanie Leupolz and Jess Carter. This team will be leaving everything on the pitch.
Ahead of what's set to be one of most anticipated games of the season, VERSUS sat down with all four players to talk about the pressures that come with performing in the world’s biggest club tournament, how the UWCL has changed and helped develop the women's game over the years, plus whether they think - like us - that their time is now.
Photography by Lily Brown for VERSUS.
VERSUS: Kadeisha, you’ve got a lot of experience in this competition, having already won it five times with the club you’re up against next, too. What is so special about the Champions League in your opinion?
Kadeisha Buchanan: Ah wow, it’s quite hard to explain, where do I even start? One of the most special things about the competition is, we get to see some of the very best footballers perform at the highest level of the game. So in that respect, it’s a little like the World Cup of club football. And even though I might have now played in the Champions League quite a lot over the years, I still never take it for granted.
Every year I think the competition gets better and better, which means it’s harder to win. But, if you’re ever lucky enough to lift that trophy, the fact it’s been such a challenging journey makes it all the more worthwhile. It’s an amazing feeling.
Jess Carter: I think she’s spot on there! I mean, I think one of the main reasons we all play football – other than winning titles of course! – is to compete against the very best. And if we’re determined to be considered the best club out there, then we need to win the best club competition, and that’s the Champions League.
And what about you Magda. Why do you enjoy playing Champions League football?
Magdalena Eriksson: I think it’s a tournament that we’ve all grown up watching, so we’ve all grown up dreaming about playing in it. There’s just something so magical about Champions League nights, you can’t really explain it. But I do think it stems from being a little kid and thinking about what it must feel like as a player to step out under the lights and play against some of the best teams out there.
Do you have to prepare for these games differently to league games?
Magda: I try to prepare for every game in exactly the same way.
Said like a true professional.
Magda: Exactly! But of course you can’t hide the fact it is a different feeling going into a Champions League fixture because like the girls have already said, you’re up against phenomenal athletes. And often you’re playing in some of the most historic grounds in football and in front of thousands of people. In that sense, it can be very different.
When it comes to playing at Stamford Bridge, or in a stadium that has football heritage, how do you manage ‘performing’ at those venues and what’s so special about them in your opinion?
Magda: I think, when you combine a stadium’s history and prestige with fans who are supporting your every move, and this goes for our matches at Kingsmeadow to be honest, it creates an indescribable feeling. You can hear the noise and you can feel the energy from so many people as they cheer for your team.
That must be an incredible adrenaline rush, to hear people screaming for every tackle, pass and goal. Do you think playing at those grounds is important for the development of women’s football?
Kadeisha: I think having the opportunity to play at monumental grounds is important, sure.
In what way?
Kadeisha: More people are given the chance to watch us play live football but also, growing up and having always seen men’s teams play here, for example – on this beautiful pitch with these incredible facilities – it’s really important that young people growing up today realise this is also a space for women to play football too.
When you play at Stamford Bridge, do the fans or does the atmosphere feel different?
Melanie Leupolz: Mmm, I guess, everything feels that little bit ‘bigger’, if that makes sense? There are more fans than usual of course but for us, our fans are always incredible whether we play here, at Kingsmeadow or anywhere else for that matter. They’re always supportive and travel with us across the country and Europe – sometimes even further afield! But Champions League football also feels bigger because there are so many people across the world watching, and that’s definitely something that’s grown as the years have gone by.
In what ways has the competition changed over the years?
Kadeisha: Of course the standard and quality of football on show and the rate at which clubs and teams have developed are huge changes but the level of visibility the competition now receives – just like Mel said – it’s a lot better compared to five, ten years ago. DAZN streams all of the games on YouTube for example and that’s great as it means everyone, anywhere in the world, can watch us play. Whereas before, it was really difficult to even find a game to watch online let alone follow an entire competition from beginning to end. And that’s amazing for the women’s professional game.
As you’ve just mentioned, the standard of football has developed as the women’s game has continued to grow. It’s almost two years since Chelsea last played in the Champions League final. How do you think the team’s developed since 2021?
Jess: I think it’s a case of lessons having been learned, you know? Each day, each week, each season we’re learning new things, and from the losses we’ve encountered along the way, they’ve helped to create better players and opportunities we’ve all learned from. Those are the types of learnings that you take into the next game, and the next.
Is the hunger still there?
Magda: Oh the hunger has and will always be there, but I think now the belief is also there as well as the experience. Two years ago, that was our first Champions League final and we learned an incredible amount from it. So now, coming into the tournament we’ve been through it all before. We know what it takes, and we know what we’ve got to do and I think it’s that type of experience you just can’t fake or replicate. We’re more experienced now than we’ve ever been.
We’ve called this feature: ‘Our Time Is Now’, and we’ve called it that because we think Chelsea have a great chance at finally becoming Champions of Europe. Do you think it’s Chelsea’s time?
Magda: As a person, I am quite big on not jinxing things and so I don’t often like to talk about winning before we do… but it’s always been our ambition to win this competition. It was our ambition when I joined this club six years ago, and will stay our ambition until we win it. And when that happens, it will be about retaining the title. Every single year we’ve gotten a little closer to achieving that goal in terms of the quality of our squad and our game, and right now, I think our team is the best it’s ever been. We’re better than ever.
What about you Kadeisha, do you think Chelsea’s time is now?
Kadeisha: I came here because I believe it is. I’m really excited and looking forward to playing games like our one against Lyon, and this season we’ve potentially got three titles to win, still. Of course we’ll focus on each game as it comes, but I think we can finish the season strong.
Mel: I think we have the players to compete ‘til the very end and win the title. There are quite a few clubs that have a lot of experience in this competition now, and the fact that leagues are continuing to get better across the continent obviously means the standard of football is generally higher than previous years – just like we’ve all discussed. But, we’ve developed and gotten better too. We are of course playing serial winners Lyon next, which will have its challenges I’m sure, but we’ll be confident and use the opportunity to show the world just how good we are.
Purchase your tickets to Chelsea’s upcoming quarter-final match against Lyon now.