Great Britain

Chelsea believe ahead of Champions League final a long time coming

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s is so often the case, Chelsea's last game of the season is also the most important one. For manager Emma Hayes it's a game she has waited nine years for. Yes, at last, a Champions League final, against Barcelona in Gothenburg, awaits on Sunday.

A first return to the European game's showpiece match for English football since 2007 - when an Arsenal group that Hayes was a part of made the final and won it - and a first for Chelsea after a decade of trying and failing.

Dominant on the domestic front, a European trophy has so far eluded Hayes and her team, but dramatic wins over Wolfsburg in the last eight and Bayern Munich in the semi-finals have the Blues on the cusp of the one title they want more than any other at long last.

"It feels like there has been something different about this year, across the mentality of the team and the squad," captain Magda Eriksson said on the eve of Sunday's game.

"The belief we have in each other, you can't really fake that. We have played together for a long time now and we believe so much in each other and have amazing players all over the pitch.

"Belief has been the difference and the mentality of finding a way to get a result. Even if we are not playing perfectly, we have found a way."

That was no truer than in those nerve-shredding knockout ties. A quarter-final first-leg where they were outplayed for long periods was saved - literally - by goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger, who almost single-handedly kept the She-wolves at bay before Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder struck with crucial goals.

There was more adversity to come in the last four when German league leaders Bayern took a 2-1 lead into the second-leg at Kingsmeadow. But, as Hayes' side have done throughout this run, they responded with Fran Kirby starring in a 4-1 win to secure their place in the final.

"We have so many great players with different qualities, we push each other every day. We have great coaches, great staff, but I would also say great people," winger Guro Reiten says.

"This year has been a struggle for all of us, not being able to go home and Covid and everything, so we've not only been each other'€™s teammates, we'™ve been each other's family, and that has made us a strong group."

That being true there is also no doubting the star power on top that has got them this far.

FWA Footballer of the Year Kirby has returned from an illness that kept her out last season to recapture her very best and alongside Australian forward Kerr has formed one of the best strike partnerships the women's game has seen.

Add in reigning Uefa's Women's Player of the Year Harder, a scorer in both the quarter and semi-finals, and it's a group that is the envy of all who face them.

“Fran, I feel like we're very, very similar,” Kerr says. “We want to play quickly, one-two touch. That only is a positive for me and Fran, that we're playing so well together. It's quite scary for other teams because I feel like when we play quick, and we play fast that no one can get near us.

“It's an amazing thing to be on the same page with someone like that. Like, literally, I don't even have to look. I just know that Fran's going to be there because she's so hungry to score and it looks telepathic. But it's just hard work from her.”

The Blues head to Sweden fresh from securing a second-consecutive Women's Super League title last weekend.

A Continental Cup won back in March and the possibility of a Covid-delayed FA Cup to come now presents the opportunity of a lifetime for a special group of players.

“I think whenever you're doing something that hasn't been done before, it's a little bit extra special," Kerr added. "So for us is it a really proud moment, we are the first Chelsea women's team to get to the final so it's a special moment. But we haven't won anything yet. So it's special, but we've still got more to go."

It won't be easy either. It's not often that this Chelsea side have been presented as underdogs this season, but the bookmakers see them that way against a Barcelona team arguably even more all-conquering than they are.

Lluis Cortes' side are league champions themselves, claiming the title by winning all 26 games, scoring 128 goals and conceding just five.

They comprehensively despatched Manchester City - Chelsea's biggest domestic rivals - and French league leaders Paris Saint-Germain along their journey here and will be full of confidence that it is in fact their name written on the trophy this year.

So how will Chelsea approach a game of such magnitude? The same as they have all the others, of course.

"I want to encourage the team to be brave and to play like we have all year," Eriksson says. "It's a big game but it's still just a football game and I want us to go out there and enjoy it. There will be nerves, 100 per cent, and for many of us it is our first Champions League final, but we have to manage it. It is about finding the balance between managing the nerves but having the core belief and confidence in ourselves.

"It would mean everything to win. It is the reason we train every day and fight so hard to get better. We have reached the final but we are not happy with that and we want to go all the way now."

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