Heading into May, the gap between the Women’s Super League leaders, Manchester United, and second-placed Chelsea was four points and United had a goal difference superior by 10. Now, with the teams preparing to face each other in Sunday’s FA Cup final at a sold-out Wembley, that gap is one point and their goal difference is level. Chelsea played an additional game and still have one in hand.
Instead of looking fatigued and weary towards the end of a gruelling season that has taken its toll injury-wise, Emma Hayes’s charges have risen to the occasion, putting seven past Everton and six past Leicester with the swagger and style long associated with Chelsea.
Hayes said that “this year our team has been written off quite easily”, but that is not entirely true. The quality of Chelsea’s performances has come under fire regularly, but their doggedness and ability to win despite not playing their best football have meant they have been impossible to write off.
Hayes pointed to the side’s ability to peak at the right moment after the impressive defeat of Leicester, in a performance she described as “ruthless”, and said she had not “seen that from us particularly in the first half of the season, but we’re a team currently coming into form at the right time. We’re taking care of the details that matter.”
In 2021 Hayes labelled the Chelsea team that roared past Bayern Munich and into a first Champions League final as “mentality monsters”. That moniker has stuck and, if anything, has been re-emphasised in this campaign.
There are huge caveats to their sometimes less than convincing performances. Chelsea have been without their star forwards, Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder, for much of the season. They were also without the starting centre-backs Millie Bright and Kadeisha Buchanan for both games against Barcelona as they narrowly exited the Champions League at the semi-final stage.
Those absences have forced the squad to dig deep and rely on every member, a testament to Hayes’s shrewd recruitment, which is as much about picking the right character as the right quality. Hayes puts the smoothness of her rotations down to not playing with a starting group in training.
“We believe in different combinations, different relationships, and everyone that knows me knows I don’t put together a team of 11 players; it’s about a squad,” she says. “I think it’s fair to say the entire squad is at their best level. Everybody has been prepared over the course of the season and for that reason it’s been tricky to pick a team.”
Fortunately for Hayes, “everyone’s available, Sam [Kerr] included” for the Cup final. Kerr sat out the defeat of Leicester, after leaving the pitch early against Everton, the return of Harder allowing her to give the much relied-on Australia forward a break.
There were eight goalscorers in those two games and Hayes acknowledges it was “about time” the rest of the squad stepped up. “The team has needed everyone to chip in,” she says. “There’s been a big reliance on Sam, maybe Guro [Reiten]. I think everybody chipping in is what this team has needed at this stage of the season.”
Defeating United to win a third successive FA Cup will be no easy feat despite an undefeated record against Marc Skinner’s side in the league. Of the Cup competition’s top five goalscorers who have reached the final this season, only Kerr makes the chart for Chelsea, leading the way with five goals, followed by United’s Nikita Parris on four, while Alessia Russo has three.
However, if Chelsea are always a beast of a team to play, come May they are an even bigger beast – as their performances and results against Everton and Leicester demonstrate.
They are serial winners who, the second they get a whiff of an advantage, latch on to a trophy like the most resilient of barnacles on a ship’s hull. That is why, despite Hayes’s protestations that Chelsea have been written off this term, they are firm favourites to win a third successive league and FA Cup double.
You might try to argue that should they achieve that, it would be the least impressive of the back-to-back-to-back triumphs given it has not been as swaggering a sweep. The reality, though, is it would be their finest, won with a dollop of adversity and in one of the most competitive title races to date.
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