When Barcelona head coach Lluis Cortes collected his winners’ medal and lifted the UEFA Women’s Champions League trophy on Sunday night, he could look to his opposite number, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, and feel real sympathy.
Her team had just lost 4-0 in the biggest game in European club football, a game that they had worked relentlessly hard towards not only this season, but for many years.
This is a project Chelsea started back in 2012, slowly but surely establishing themselves as a force in England, before translating that onto the European stage in recent seasons.
Two years ago, Cortes stood in that same position. His Barca team were 3-0 down inside 20 minutes to Lyon in their first final, outclassed by an opponent with more experience.
Fast forward two years, Barcelona had taken Lyon’s role. They raced into an incredible three-goal lead in the same space of time in Gothenburg, using the hurt from Budapest to spur them on.
The experience, tactical lessons and also the growth in quality and chemistry in the team allowed them to come back and become European champions. For Chelsea, that path is there for them to take too.
“[Barcelona's] experience counted,” Hayes said after the game. “They had the pain of two years ago and it showed. I think the best two teams in Europe were in the final today. Regardless of the score line, I think the gap is probably a little bit closer than the score line suggests. But I don't think we performed at our best levels.”
Barcelona were certainly the better team, a deserved winner and dominant in every sense, but there is no need for an inquest at Chelsea after this, despite how heavy the defeat was. The first two goals were freak incidents after all, though Barca did create plenty around them.
The Catalans have had the core of their squad in place for a number of years now, with most of them recruited before the 2019 final. The two years following that defeat have only helped them grow stronger as a unit.
With Chelsea, there is not a massive turnover of players every year, but they have added some of their most important pieces very recently – Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Melanie Leupolz all signed within the last 18 months. They have settled in brilliantly and thrived from the get-go, but imagine how they will look in this team in two years.
There are obvious issues that will need addressing for Chelsea in the short-term. A lack of depth in defence has threatened to trouble them this season, with versatile and coachable players such as Jess Carter and Niamh Charles helping to combat that.
But the pair struggled massively on Sunday in their unnatural full-back roles when faced with Caroline Graham Hansen and Lieke Martens, two of the most talented wingers on the planet. That’s no secret to Hayes, of course, with signings already being made; Aniek Nouwen was added from PSV this week.
Barcelona have added small pieces like that each year to complement the talent they already have. They’ve kept the core group together, they’ve learned from setbacks and they’ve just continued on their journey.
“In Budapest last time, we were, I suppose, like Chelsea is tonight,” Cortes noted after the game. “It was the same sort of game against Lyon that night. I've said it a lot, because it's the truth - that night we promised ourselves we would work a lot to be European champions at some point.”
“We’re the second-best team in Europe,” Hayes said. “That’s a step in the right direction.”
There is no doubt that Chelsea have the hunger, the talent and the belief in their project to follow in Barcelona’s footsteps. Some things just can’t be rushed. Some things just need learning curves and time.