Chelsea manager Emma Hayes believes the worry about the COVID-19 outbreak in England “played a major part” as the Blues crashed out in the Women’s Champions League group stages on Thursday night.
Hayes’ side reached the final of the competition last season and were top of their group heading into the final round of games, with Wolfsburg needing to beat them by two clear goals to qualify instead.
The German side ran out 4-0 winners in the end and after the game, the Chelsea boss went into detail about the impact the recent surge in COVID cases has had on her team, with two players ruled out for this game due to positive tests.
How was Chelsea affected by COVID?
Speaking in her postmatch press conference, Hayes said: “First of all, congratulations to Wolfsburg. They deserved to go through. I think it’s important for me to say.
“I’m not making excuses for the players, but I can tell you that the last three days have been all over the place with the worry that we have to play this game. While fixture congestion is a thing, COVID is real and when you’re in a team environment, you know that it spreads like wildfire in a team.
“I’m gutted. I’m gutted for the players, because we all know that was nowhere near a team that represents my team. I’ve got players being sick in there, they’ve got diarrhea, they’re exhausted, and maybe some of that mental anxiety plays a part in it.
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“But I just feel like this was deja vu and we’re here again 12 months on after a really, really bad COVID outbreak at exactly the same time last year. I think that played a major part in our performance tonight.”
Asked if she feels there should be a pause in the season, Hayes replied: “I’m definitely not on the fence. We do not get paid millions of pounds. I want my players to go and see their families.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t separate that anxiety from the performance. I didn’t recognize my players tonight. I thought we were all over the place. If we land tomorrow, take our PCR test and we have a mass outbreak with COVID then, what do you want me to say?
“We’ve gone out in the Champions League and I know we’re absolutely gutted about it, but I can honestly tell you I don’t recognize my team tonight. I’ve never seen performance like that from them and stress and anxiety is real.
“While I wish they could have separated it to perform, we were nowhere near it to be in a position to win.”
What happened in the game?
Chelsea knew that a draw would be enough to send them through, but were tasked with traveling to face a Wolfsburg side who needed to win. Svenja Huth put the hosts 2-0 up inside 25 minutes, with the Blues’ defense — which had conceded only two goals in the last 11 games — all at sea.
An injury to captain Magdalena Eriksson was another blow to the team and its defense, with Tabea Wassmuth able to add two second-half goals to seal the victory.
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“To be honest with you, the team didn’t carry out the game plan. We were in a 4-2-3-1, but we weren’t here,” Hayes said, waving her hand in front of her face.
“It didn’t matter how much information we were trying to give, we were all over the place. We don’t talk about a lot of this from performance perspectives, but whatever battles internally were going on individually . . . Have you ever seen so many individuals in this team perform so poorly? Not really, not often.
“They’re really, really difficult moments as a coach when you have so many players performing so poorly, and they’re so disjointed and all over the place.”
Which teams are in the UWCL quarterfinals?
Along with Wolfsburg, Juventus sealed their qualification from Group A, beating Servette after a goalless draw with Chelsea in London last week.
Reigning champions Barcelona remain the favorites to win the competition, with PSG, Lyon, Real Madrid, Arsenal and Bayern Munich also in the last eight.
The draw for the quarterfinals will be made on Monday, Dec. 20.