Since Manchester City WFC moved across the street to the Academy Stadium in 2015, Chelsea have never won there. The Proper Shade of Blues have drawn there plenty of times, but it is of course winning that matters most. And in a Cup match, it is the only option.
In Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup, our eighth visit, things were looking good. Chelsea had fought hard and went into half-time up 1-0 thanks to a perfect volleyed shot from midfielder, and eventual player of the match, Melanie Leupolz. But after the break, things got weird, then worse. City equalized after goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger made an ill-advised quick throw that put the typically calm and comfortable Magdalena Eriksson under instant pressure from Chloe Kelly. The City winger won the ball in Chelsea’s box and scored from close range.
Then City celebrated exuberantly as Lauren Hemp scored a go-ahead goal via a goalmouth scramble after a corner.
Chelsea, in particular 82nd-minute substitutes Niamh Charles and Sophie Ingle, were personally aggrieved by the clumsiness of it all.
Charles was the first to respond to the sheer audacity of City thinking that they were going to defeat us on the day with such an unrefined, and unspectacular goal, by doing this in the 89th minute.
Yes, sure, yes: ‘all goals count’ is the standard mantra, one that is highlighted to the extreme in a Cup competition. But that’s a reductive way of looking at football, and, to be honest, life. I won’t deny that there is something funny about beating a rival with a whoopsie-daisy-esque goal, or better yet an own goal, but if I’m given the option of a player on my team doing so, I am choosing wondergoal every time.
The fluidity of Charles’ strike is what really sets this goal apart. She chest controls and winds up for the first-time volley, completely devoid of panic and before any City defender can react. The strike itself is another layer of wickedness. Perfectly timed volleys are hard; perfectly timed volleys in which you cut across the ball rather than powering your laces through it are even harder; and perfectly timed volleys in which you cut across the ball rather than powering your laces through it so that the ball loops over the keeper and spins into the side netting are even harder.
Chelsea and City were now tied 2-2 and heading into extra time.
Five minutes into extra time, Guro Reiten, who entered the fray in the 61st minute and also assisted Charles for her equalizer, decided she wanted a goal herself. Reiten is a clever player with a left foot that could perform open-heart surgery. And while her goal wasn’t as spectacular as Charles’, it was brilliant in its own quick-witted and clever way. The City goalkeeper had gone to ground at a stretch to palm away a low cross at pace, but Reiten instantly read the path and bounce of the ball and met it with a sliding strike that bounced between defenders and into the net before Bardsley even had a chance to get back to her feet.
Chelsea were up 3-2, but were not done. This was personal.
Sophie Ingle also needed to exorcise her own disgust at being on the pitch to witness City’s pedestrian effort five minutes from full time. SO SHE DID THIS:
Ingle doesn’t do unspectacular goals, but even by her standards, this was something special. I need you to understand that the purity of this strike meant that it was never not going to be a goal. I don’t mean that in a moral sense, I mean that in the scientific sense. I mean that the way Ingle struck this ball, even if it had flown wide or just high, it would have then orbited Earth and re-entered the stadium from the opposite end and flown above the pitch until it found the top corner — because that’s how physics works.
In football, we see all kinds of things that are unfair — a beautiful dribble with a missed shot at the end, a venomous strike that hits the post and caroms out, a perfect assist flubbed by the should-be scorer — it’s why the word “unlucky” is cemented into the glossary of the sport. But there also exists a purity so rare that it is untouchable by such primitive phenomena. This was one such strike. The simplicity of the striking motion, the timing, and the flight of the ball are all consequences of pure perfection. Great strikes transform a football on the cellular level, its mass and atoms rearranged into something else, perhaps something even alive when the level of curl and spin is enough. This strike turned the ball into something cosmic. Without the net it would eventually have found a home rivaling the routine magnificence of Halley’s Comet.
In the end, not only did Chelsea win at the Academy Stadium for the first time, but we did so by crushing City hearts, denying them a trophy, and with two marvelous strikes after City players must have surely felt they had done just enough.
But just enough is never enough, as Emma Hayes might say.
That is the ruthlessness of this Chelsea team.