Women’s football reaches new peak but old truth remains – Chelsea are inevitable
On another day of seismic change, one thing remains the same: Chelsea and Sam Kerr are inevitable. In all honesty, did anyone expect this Women’s FA Cup final to unfold any differently? Even as Manchester United created a series of half-chances and nearly-moments, the only team looking like scoring, Chelsea barely flinched. It was all in the plan, and as Pernille Harder was brought from the bench, an approach from Emma Hayes that could have so easily backfired suddenly looked obvious. Harder changed the game, but Kerr – who else – won it for Chelsea. The striker scored for the sixth cup final in a row and, for the third consecutive season, won Chelsea the FA Cup at Wembley.
And so on a historic day, in front of a world-record crowd for a women’s domestic match, the outcome became somewhat routine. Not that Chelsea will care. For the best part of 55 minutes, there was only one team at Wembley who appeared as if they wanted to win this cup final, and it wasn’t the one who are now halfway to completing yet another double. Chelsea like to suffer – Hayes demands it from her players – and these serial champions don’t at all care if it means you suffer too. There were no guarantees that a historic final would be enjoyable. That isn’t really Chelsea’s job.
Winning trophies is, though, and that’s a secret that Marc Skinner’s United are yet to learn. This was the club’s first-ever FA Cup final, five years on from relaunching their women’s team, and it showed. But the biggest game in the club’s short history could have been so different – a deflected effort from Millie Turner could have otherwise beaten Ann-Katrin Berger, a challenge on Nikita Parris from Maren Mjelde could have been an inch inside the penalty box, rather than out, a goalmouth scramble in the 96th minute that was hacked away could have fallen another way - but those are the fine margins that so often go in Chelsea’s favour.
United for so long seemed certain to find the breakthrough. Chelsea had not turned up and United showed more ambition. Yet Chelsea always looked like the team who could step it up, as soon as Hayes was ready to release Harder from the bench. Harder’s impact was that – a suggestion so obvious, yet so crucial to deciding this showpiece final. It gave Chelsea another runner, another pass to find, and it unlocked a team that before had looked so stuck. Harder was released by Guro Reiten and her ball across to Kerr put the winning goal on a plate.
It wins Chelsea another FA Cup, another piece added to the dominance of Hayes’ team. Wembley is their domain, and it’s another reason to explain why such a historic event felt so reassuringly familiar. Wembley on FA Cup final day was just as you would picture it to look and feel: blue sky, the warmth of May sunshine, a constant stream of people coming down Wembley Way. It’s how the FA Cup final should be, and now is for the Women’s FA Cup with an attendance of 77,390, up from 49,000 in a single year.
It’s an astonishing achievement by all those involved, and the many others who paved the way. Yet, like so many FA Cup finals played in such conditions, this contest started out as nervy, tight, and so very slow, full of stops and starts and little rhythm. There was a Mexican Wave after 30 minutes, as a giant inflatable football bobbed around the bottom tier and a lonely air horn sounded in the upper reaches of the packed top deck.
Chelsea were not interested in supplying the entertainment and it was United who had the better moments. The first half was almost so different, after United’s Leah Galton struck inside 30 seconds of the final, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside as Ella Toone went fractionally too early in the build-up. United started confidently but Chelsea, a side comfortable playing without the ball, absorbed their pressure with a mild indifference.
As expected, United were bolder in their approach, leading to a series of half-moments, chances that could have swung this final in a different direction. Turner’s shot was deflected by Mjelde from close range, requiring an instinctive hand from Berger. Galton poked wide from Alessia Russo’s deflected cross, before Parris was brought down on the right edge of the box after spinning away from Mjelde.
After half-time, United started to be more direct and Chelsea’s high line was tested, creaking if not breaking, but then came Harder. Within seconds, there was the logic of why the Denmark international did not start, despite scoring four goals in two appearances previous to this. Brought off the bench alongside Sophie Ingle just before the hour, Harder arrived and Chelsea immediately had their best moments.
The change from Hayes released Kerr and Reiten, who before had been so well shackled by the excellent United right-back Ona Batlle. For the first time, Chelsea clicked with four forwards on the pitch. For the first time, Lauren James could duck inside and see movement in two directions. Before Kerr’s goal, the Australian set up a chance with a cut-back that Harder couldn’t get out of her feet - then James slipped a delightful pass through to Harder that brought Mary Earps into action.
The momentum had turned and with Kerr’s goal, the season did too. Chelsea are now three wins away from winning their fourth consecutive Women’s Super League title, and with a record points tally. United, who have led for so much of the season, would be powerless to stop it, just as what unfolded here felt like an unrelenting narrative of a match that was decided long before kick-off. Even as Earps went up for a late corner and Galton had the chance to swing a right leg in a mad scramble on the six-yard line, the end felt written: Chelsea are the FA Cup winners once again.