Pernille Harder will be hoping it is third time lucky when she steps on to the pitch at the Gamla Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg to play Barcelona in the Champions League final on Sunday evening. She knows exactly what it is like to lose. In 2018 she was agonisingly close to getting her hands on the trophy, scoring first in extra time for Wolfsburg before Alex Popp was sent off and the finely balanced game tipped in Lyon’s favour, the French champions scoring four to twist the knife well and truly.
In 2020 the teams and outcome were the same but they were less well matched and Lyon earned a 3-1 victory in normal time. It is testament to the influence and brilliance of Harder, though, that in both years, despite being on the losing side, the Danish forward was named European player of the year. Now with Chelsea, she will have another go, in a new set-up and against a different team.
“Unfortunately I can tell you what it is like to be on the losing side,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not a good feeling. It’s always nice to get to the final but, when you are there, you want to win it and not being on the winning side is disappointing. To be so close and not get it is tough. So, of course, I’m really motivated.”
There is an air of resilience about this Chelsea team demonstrated by their battling run to the final. In the last-16 against Atlético Madrid a red card for Sophie Ingle in the 13th minute had Chelsea on the ropes but they weathered the resulting pressure and would go on to win the game 2-0 and the tie 3-1.
In the next round, against Harder’s former team Wolfsburg, they progressed with a 5-1 aggregate win against the team they had failed to get past three times. In the semi-final against Bayern Munich they became just the third team in the 20-year history of the competition to lose the first leg and still reach the final.
“To be 2-1 down in the first leg and then turn it around to win 4-1 at home at Kingsmeadow was an unbelievable feeling,” says Harder. “You really know why you play football, why you put so much time in, to win and play games like that. It was amazing.”
Does that resilience give them an edge? “We still believe that we can turn any game around. The game is 90 minutes, at least 90 minutes, and no matter how the games are turning we know we can come back if we have a setback.”
Harder arrived at Chelsea after the defeat in last year’s final as the world’s most expensive player, for a fee of around £300,000. “Of course it puts some pressure on you,” she says. “Everyone thinks you can do everything on the pitch when you have that price. It puts on pressure, or some expectations at least. But handling expectation is something I’ve been working with for the last five or six years. I knew how to handle it. Obviously some of the things I could do on the pitch in Wolfsburg I couldn’t do right away. First you have to adapt, then you can bring the qualities you have on the pitch which I think I’ve been doing across the season.”
Harder had an advantage on most new arrivals at Chelsea. Her partner, Magda Eriksson, is the captain of the side and she arrived with a deep understanding of the club and its players.
“I’ve been following the team for a long time, with Magda playing here, and I saw the development of the team,” she says. “It was so interesting to see what was happening and I just felt like I wanted to be a part of it. That was what was mostly my motivation to come to Chelsea.”
Winning alongside Eriksson would be a special moment. “We talked about it the other day, if we would have thought six years ago, when we were at Linköping [the Swedish side where they met], that we would eventually play a Champions League final together, that would have been the biggest dream. Now we get to do it. The biggest thing would be to see Magda lift the trophy, that would be a very proud moment for her and me also.”
With the pressure on as Chelsea vie for a third trophy of the season — after their WSL title last Sunday and league cup win earlier in the season — it would be easy to imagine that they take football home with them. “We always leave football on the pitch and the good thing is we can be super honest with each other on the pitch, good and bad things or helping each other. Then in private, we are private,” she says.
What will they do if they win? “For me it’s not about framing medals or anything like that. For me it’s about the memories and the feelings we have when we win. That’s what I remember and I save,” says Harder. “If it happens and we win it, the aim again will be the same. It’s not the end if we win the Champions League. We want to win the title and the Champions League again and for me that’s for the memories and feelings that football brings.”
She adds. “On and off the pitch, no matter what we are competing in, we both have a winning mentality … good and bad.”