Chelsea Women booked their place in the Champions League quarter finals with a 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid in Monza to give them a 3-1 aggregate victory.
Atletico missed another penalty to add to the two saved by Ann-Katrin Berger at Kingsmeadow as Chelsea’s dreams of securing a maiden Champions League title remain very much alive.
Niamh Charles conceded the spot kick from which Atletico could have forced themselves back into the tie after being penalised for handball, but it was the only blot on the 21-year-old’s copybook across the two ties, and caps off a pretty impressive seven days for the youngster.
Charles joined Chelsea from Liverpool in the summer, impressing for the Reds despite their relegation from the WSL. Her performance against Everton in November 2019’s Merseyside derby at Anfield was particularly eye catching.
She has spent the majority of her short senior career operating as a flying winger, blessed with real pace, skill and an ability to glide past players. However, the Liverpool academy graduate was deployed at fullback during England’s inter squad friendly in November, and it is in this position that she shone across Chelsea’s two-legged victory over Atletico and during Sunday’s win over West Ham in the WSL.
Charles was thrown into the thick of the action in the first leg after Chelsea were reduced to 10 players. Coming off the bench in such a high stakes game, with a high quality opposition, plus the adversity of being a player down and playing in a still slightly unfamiliar position was an unbelievably daunting task, but she handled the occasion exceptionally.
She was sound defensively, while her pace and athleticism were such an asset going forward it was often difficult to tell that Chelsea had a numerical disadvantage. At 21, Charles was a signing brought in with the long-term in mind. Yet with just two WSL starts to her name coming into the Atletico game, she turned in a performance of the highest quality in one of the most important games in Chelsea’s season.
Charles turned in another impressive display at right back against West Ham on Sunday – having a hand in both Blues’ goals – and Emma Hayes revealed that she signed the England youth international with the intention of transforming her into a fullback.
“I thought she would end up in that position,” Hayes said. “I think we’ve had to take the right time to expose her bit by bit, I think she’s enjoying playing there. We know there’s a lot she’s got to do defensively and a lot she’s got to learn, but she’s willing.
“She’s a great learner, she’s a great listener, she applies everything in 100% detail and that is what I think is going to make Niamh a top player is her application – her diligence to herself and what’s required. She’s a really well liked member of the dressing room because everyone knows how hard she works week in, week out. She’s going to be a top player.”
Charles’ versatility is a particular bonus in this current Chelsea side, which is so fluid and dynamic and where the likes of Fran Kirby, Erin Cuthbert, Maren Mjelde Pernille Harder and Sophie Ingle have a habit of popping up here, there and everywhere.
“I think it’s that versatility – sometimes for people that can be a bit of a negative, being a versatile player, but actually in a team like Chelsea it’s key,” former Chelsea fullback Claire Rafferty told 90min when asked about Charles. “She’s a fantastic player, isn’t she? I’m really excited to continue watching her, she’ll be one to watch for a long, long time.”
For England too, Charles’ versatility and quality at right back will be a real asset. The Lionesses have long relied on Lucy Bronze to drag them through international tournaments, and although at 29 the Manchester City defender is nowhere near done yet, one day England will have to plan for life without Bronze bombing up and down the right flank.
Fortunately in west London, Emma Hayes is already cooking up a ready-made replacement.