BETH ENGLAND SCORED a dramatic stoppage time winner to ensure Chelsea secured their first Women’s League Cup. England had put the Blues ahead inside eight minutes but, despite a stoic rear guard action and a player of the match performance by Blues keeper Ann-Katrin Berger, Arsenal’s Leah Willamson equalised for the Gunners in the 85th minute. As the match was headed for extra time England arrived to convert Maren Mjelde’s cross to seal her brace and take the trophy back to Kingsmeadow for the first time, giving manager Emma Hayes the full domestic set.
With ‘Jorge’ raging across the UK in the previous 24 hours and the weather having ravaged women’s football generally in recent weeks, fans may have been more nervous about the match being rained off than the final result. But no such drama emerged at the City Ground in Nottingham; instead a pulsating 90-minute storm played out on the on the pitch in front of a record 6,743 crowd (for this competition – it was previously 5,028). Arsenal dominated the ball for long spells and made a raft of second half opportunities. But Berger and the Chelsea backline were at their most resilient and the Blues always carried a palpable threat on the break.
Arsenal, five time winners of the Conti-Cup, were without Kim Little and Beth Mead through injury. New recruit Caitlin Foord provided offensive width with Dutch powerhouse Jill Roord taking a starting berth alongside Jordan Nobbs in midfield. Manager Joe Montemurro looked to take the game to Chelsea having suffered defeats in both WSL matches against them this season.
Chelsea’s team sheet suggested that manager Hayes had expected them to go out and attack. England was paired with Aussie striker Sam Kerr and both Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert were picked to flank Ji So-yun. There would be no starting spot for Drew Spence or Hannah Blundell.
Nerves may have played their part in setting the pace of the early exchanges. Kerr had an early ‘sighter’ for the Blues and then Gunners defender Viktoria Schaderbeck did well to recover and block Guro Reiten’s shot.
England put Chelsea ahead on eight minutes.Working the ball from right to left, Ji found Jonna Andersson out wide. Her cross was kept alive by Mjelde at the back post and England was quickest to the loose ball driving low past Zinsberger on the turn with her left foot. It was the striker’s 20th goal of the season in all competitions.
Arsenal almost restored parity immediately. Katie McCabe fashioned a terrific cross form the left that Louise Quinn powered goalwards but found Berger equal to it – the German clawing the ball away before it crossed the line.
It was to become a running theme. The keeper was back in action again moments later dealing with a low drive from Jordan Nobbs following good work by the lively Foord.
Berger was sharp to deal with another Miedema effort, finger-tipping to safety a shot heading for her top left-hand corner. Roord then missed the target from outside the penalty area after more creativity from Australian Foord – looking the very definition of a livewire on the wing.
Chelsea sought to make their less frequent forays count when the chances arose. Erin Cuthbert had struggled to stamp her authority on the match but, just before the half hour mark, found England in the box. The young Lioness, though, couldn’t direct her glancing header on target.
At the other end, Arsenal’s Quinn nodded wide.
England went close to doubling the Blues’ lead on 31 mins meeting Reiten’s cross after Andersson had played the Norwegian in behind the Arsenal backline. Again, England could not test Zinsberger in the Arsenal goal.
The match was now moving rapidly from end to end. Kerr had an effort blocked for Chelsea before her international team mate, Foord, missed a gilt-edged chance blasting into the side netting after Miedema had cleared her path to goal.
Chelsea had their first corner on 42 minutes. McCabe cleared Kerr’s effort off the line but found Sophie Ingle poised to strike on the edge of the box. Mercifully for the Gunners, she was unable to recreate her blistering effort from a few weeks ago in the WSL and thumped a low drive wide of the upright.
Into the second half, Chelsea made the quicker start. Reiten fizzed a shot over the bar and England found Zinsberger fleet of foot to clear as the striker was bearing down on goal.
Back Arsenal came, increasing the pressure around the Blues’ penalty box. Miedema, finding her way in to the game more and more as it wore on, got herself a pocket of space and drilled just wide of the target.
But Chelsea retained that threat on the break away. Guro Reiten played Kerr in behind the Gunners’ back line. Zinsberger saved the first effort as the striker tried to round her and the rebound was put wide with the Australian off balance.
Parked in Chelsea’s defensive third once again, Arsenal put together their most concerted period of pressure with twenty minutes remaining. Foord found Jordan Nobbs in the 18-yard box but she drove wide. Miedema was off target with another effort and then the Dutchwoman forced a brilliant flying save from Berger.
Emma Hayes in the Chelsea dug out had seen enough and chose to declare at 1-0, bringing the more defensively-minded Maria Thorisdottir on for Ji So-yun in midfield. They just needed to make it to the finish line.
Into the final ten minutes, Foord was again causing problems on the wing. She crossed for Miedema, who controlled the ball and got plenty on the shot but Berger was equal to it saving brilliantly at point blank range.
But the German could do nothing about Leah Williamson’s equaliser on 85 minutes. Corners had been an issue all night for the Blues’ defence. While Bright and Eriksson were often winners of the first ball, Arsenal were mostly quicker to the scraps. And so it proved again. Willamson’s first effort was blocked but she retained her composure and slid the ball into the left hand corner at the second bite.
Cue pandemonium in the red areas of the stands and Chelsea, as a group, suddenly resembling a punch-drunk boxer on the field. Arsenal could smell victory and nearly took the lead with their chance. Berger couldn’t deal with Nobbs’ centre and Quinn looked well set to finish but lashed her effort over the bar.
Five minutes of stoppage time was indicated and, by this point, only Arsenal really looked like they had anything left in the tank to get the match won before an additional 30 minutes would be required. But, as so often has been the case this season, Chelsea dug deep and found a way to win.
A long, low ball down the right flank was contested by Kerr and Schnaderbeck. The striker cleverly cut inside and even though she had the opportunity to claim a foul, she regained her balance, and fed Mjelde arriving in the box. The Norwegian skipped a challenge and crossed for England all alone at the back post to send Chelsea into dream land.
“To win here is childhood-dream stuff here today – managing at the ground of the legend Brian Clough. The best team didn’t win the game, the most resilient team won the game with a goalkeeper who had a tremendous performance. I always felt this was going to be a really tough final, but that resilient performance is why we’ve come away with the trophy.”Emma Hayes, Chelsea Manager
Arsenal fans will wonder how they didn’t win this game having played so well and created so many chances. The margins are so fine between the very top teams in the sport, so it often comes down to simply which team is more effective in the penalty boxes. With England, the form WSL striker, at one end, and keeper Berger looking inspired at the other, these players were the difference in a match that was a terrific advert for women’s football.
With the match going out on BT Sport 1, UK fans were unable to stream the match through the FA’s free online Player. The rest of the world would get access through this way, however. No ‘day passes’ are sold on BT Sport but Sky offer a month-at-a-time package to add the BT channels via providers like Talk Talk. The cost? £36! So, cheaper to go to the game.
Quite why the FA didn’t consider a small nominal charge for casual UK viewers on the Player is unclear. An exclusivity package with BT surely couldn’t have been that lucrative – the prize money for the winning team was only £6,500. One wit on social media pointed out that once this amount was shared across the entire squad and management team, it would be more cost effective for the players to make and send blooper videos to Harry Hill’s You’ve Been Framed. Food for thought there football authorities…
“If we want to develop an elite product, the likes of the FA need to make sure the money is commensurate to the levels we are playing at because some of the figures are embarrassing.”Eni Aluko, BBC Radio Five Live Sports Extra
Chelsea (4-4-2): Berger, Bright, Ingle, England, Ji (Thorisdottir), Reiten, Eriksson, Mjelde, Kerr, Cuthbert, Andersson
Arsenal (4-3-3): Zinsberger, Evans, Quinn, Schnaderbeck, McCabe, Williamson, Roord, van de Donk, Nobbs, Miedema, Foord
Recently, we reached number 32 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…