Chelsea Women 2-1 Real Madrid: 3 standout players, Cuthbert leads once again

Coming off what Emma Hayes said was her side's best display this season, Chelsea Women took care of business in the SW6 to advance to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Women's Champions League.

Chelsea FC Women v Real Madrid CF: Group D - UEFA Women's Champions League 2023/24
Chelsea FC Women v Real Madrid CF: Group D - UEFA Women's Champions League 2023/24 / Alex Pantling/GettyImages
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While it wasn't the most entertaining of 90 minutes, the task is completed. In the midst of Chelsea Women's biggest Women's Super League rivals competing in a meaningless cup competition, the Blues inched closer to European glory.

A penalty by Guro Reiten and an own goal by Real Madrid's second string goalkeeper Mylène Chavas put the west Londoners into the UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinals for the third time in the last four seasons. No more nerves. It is all but certain. Lyon and Barcelona will not be an opponent in the next round. The win guarantees a second leg at the Bridge in the quarters, something that came in handy last year.

Madrid's injuries have put a damper on its campaign so far. Even with that, Las Blancas challenged the Blues somewhat in defense. Linda Caicedo's injury hurt their threat going forward, but the club's second-leading goal scorer Athenea del Castillo brought a spark off the bench. Similar to what Lauren James did for CFCW in the second 45. Madrid, for the most part stayed compact in the back, hoping to catch the home side's backline sleeping with the pace and skill of some of its individual talents. That's exactly what it did to equalize just before the 70'. The stress didn't last very long, though. The connection between Johanna Rytting Kaneryd and the club's captain made sure the over 11,000 fans in attendance could breathe a sigh of relief.

Sometimes, you just have to find a way to clinch those three points. Doesn't matter how it gets done. The turnaround from the Manchester United match surely didn't help the Blues ambition to head into the quarterfinals in style. A letdown in quality was bound to occur.

"Our league is tough so when you're playing a game like you do against United, then one recovery day, a training session, then playing a game, it's tough," Hayes said. "We have four games in nine days."

The grind doesn't stop for Chelsea Women with another match on Saturday, following the men's FA Cup contest against Aston Villa. Here are our standout players from a match that was not so easy on the eye at times.

3 standout players from Chelsea's third UWCL triumph this campaign

3. Erin Cuthbert

The choice for Player of the Match was straightforward. You just knew with the captain's armband, the Scottish international was going to continue this red-hot run of form. For some reason, it still feels like she's underrated. If you don't have a kit with the Scottish international on the back, get to it.

Sunday, she made the entire Manchester United midfield look invisible. A few days later, Erin Cuthbert captained the Blues into the final eight of the Champions League. It was No. 22 relentlessness to make something happen in the final third that caused Chavas to palm the ball right into the back of her own net. With Sam Kerr, and Millie Bright out, nobody deserves the captain's armband more than Cuthbert.

For the fifth time in the last six contests excluding the FA Cup match that Cuthbert completed over 80 percent of her passes. Her seven tackles plus interceptions were tied for the most on the team last night along with her running mate in the midfield, Melanie Leupolz.

It was the second consecutive contest in which No. 22 in blue led her side in that category. She's winning balls back in opposition's half all while making intelligent runs behind the defense. No. 22 in blue is simply a sensational footballer. Emma Hayes agrees.

Hayes gave her take on the kind of impact Cuthbert has made recently, stating, "She's leading by example. She is taking more and more responsibility. She deserves the credit she is getting as I think her form is tremendous right now, I really do. [In the last two games] she's probably been our best player."

2. Melanie Leupolz

We still have to remind ourselves that the German Leupolz missed three months of competitive football. No. 8 has been crisp in everything she's done since she came off the bench against West Ham United in the FA Cup on January 14. The midfielder is that steady force in the center that keeps the team together. She'll get into advanced areas, pick out the right pass, and then retreat to make a tackle in the middle third minutes later.

Leupolz executed nine progressive passes for the second successive contest, four behind Ashley Lawrence for the team lead last night. You couldn't really tell she played a full 90 on Sunday. She even completed two out of her three take-on attempts, tying Charles when it came to the success rate.

13 passes into the final third tells you all you need to know about her influence on kickstarting an attacking action. With Sjoeke Nüsken playing in more advanced areas of the pitch lately, there's a clear No. 1 option alongside Cuthbert in that double pivot. Sure, Sophie Ingle will rotate in there from time to time, but when the Blues need a result, No. 8 in blue should anchor the midfield.

1. Guro Reiten

You just knew she was going to stand up to that pressure. We've seen it before. Oh, how we've missed the "GuRoar." It's the first time that's it has come out since that Manchester City equalizer all the way back in the beginning of October. It was also Reiten's first goal contribution in a European fixture since that semifinal in Barcelona.

With Kerr watching from the stands, the Norwegian caused havoc from the left during the first half with Niamh Charles, linking up with her quite frequently. Those four progressive carries, the most she's had all season so far back up that fact. She worked hard to gain possession of those 50-50 balls, amassing the team-lead in recoveries with nine. This was Reiten's second 90-minute match since October. As she continues to get her feet under her, more and more of the player she was last season will begin to show.

Chelsea Women head off on the road for the first time in 2024 for an encounter with a gritty Brighton and Hove Albion team on Saturday, January 27.

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