Chelsea became the second English club to advance to the Champions League knockout stage, joining Arsenal in securing a quarter-final place. A comfortable 4-0 victory over Vllaznia in Albania saw Emma Hayes’ side qualify with a game to spare. First half goals from Sophie Ingle and Fran Kirby set the tone before a late header from Katerina Svitkova and Maren Mjelde’s injury-time penalty rounded off the scoring.
A frustrating draw away to Real Madrid a week ago had ensured the Blues needed a result in Shkoder to progress. Nevertheless, Chelsea came into this encounter as clear favourites, having lost just once in their last ten European games. Their dominance against the same opponent was evident in October when they put eight past them at Kingsmeadow.
Vllaznia made history in the summer when they became the first Albanian side, men’s or women’s, to reach the last 16 of a European competition in 33 years. Unsurprisingly, they have found the group stage tough as they have gone toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite, suffering five defeats that will see them drop out of the competition.
Hayes has not been shy of utilising the full depth of her squad over the course of the campaign and she rang the changes once more. The one constant throughout has been the inclusion of Canadian international, Kadeisha Buchanan, in central defence. With Millie Bright and Magdalena Eriksson rested, she was joined on this occasion by Aniek Nouwen. It was the 23-year-old’s first start of this European campaign, having made only fleeting appearances for Chelsea this season.
Another notable inclusion was that of Jelena Cankovic. Like Buchanan, the Serbian made the move to London in the summer, impressing on her first start for the club against Reading last weekend and notching a brace.
Chelsea were in control throughout as they registered 708 passes to Vllaznia’s 170. The hosts did everything they could to repel the continuous waves of attack but a first half breakthrough was inevitable. With 12 minutes on the clock, Guro Reiten’s cut-back was deflected into the path of captain Ingle, who dispatched a low finish with pinpoint accuracy past Kaylin Williams-Mosier.
A second goal followed shortly after through a set-piece routine that will have been familiar to viewers of the WSL. A quick free-kick from Cankovic had seen Kirby score against Reading at the weekend. They were equally successful this time around with the Serbia international catching the defence sleeping to feed Kirby once more. The hosts surrounded Karoline Wacker in protest but the German referee waved them away.
Hayes had anticipated that Nikolin Leka’s side would be tougher to break down than in their first encounter and the lead remained at two goals until deep into the second half.
Hayes rang the changes, making a series of substitutions to try to inject some pace into the game. Lauren James andSvitkova combined within minutes to set up Sam Kerr but the Australian’s effort was ruled out for offside.
Chelsea were restricted to half-chances until they finally found a third when Svitkova headed home. A controversial penalty for handball against Sara Maliqi in injury time was converted by Mjelde to round off the score.