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Chelsea breeze past Manchester City in Women’s FA Cup semifinal

Chelsea book cup final date with title-rivals Arsenal

Manchester City v Chelsea - The Vitality Women’s FA Cup Semi Final Photo by Joe Prior/Visionhaus

It may have taken six years, but Chelsea finally have finally achieved a 90-minute victory at Manchester City’s home ground — we needed 120 minutes back in January in the League Cup quarterfinal for our first ever win there. This time the occasion was (last season’s) Women’s FA Cup semi-final, postponed to this season due to the pandemic.

Meetings between these two clubs have tended to produced barnstorming games and last-minute drama, however, that was not to be the case in this one. City are in the middle of a grave injury crisis and had to dig deep into their ranks, with players filling in unfamiliar roles across the pitch in the 3-5-2 formation, which was a departure from their usual shape in response to Chelsea’s 3-4-3. A makeshift back three consisted of Alex Greenwood and Demi Stokes, both fullbacks, and midfielder Jill Scott. Lauren Hemp and Janine Beckie filled in as wingbacks. Ellen White and Bunny Shaw partnered up front with a midfield trio of Caroline Weir, Keira Walsh and Laura Coombs rounding out the eleven.

Chelsea had to make some changes of our own as Pernille Harder was held out so as to not risk injury. This meant Cuthbert moving into the front three alongside Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby, with Jess Carter moving to wingback to help tame the threat of Lauren Hemp, and Aniek Nouwen coming in to start in the middle of the back three, between Magda Eriksson and Millie Bright. Melanie Leupolz and Sophie Ingle were the chosen midfield partnership with Guro Reiten continuing to feature as the marauding left wingback. This also opened up room for the surprise inclusion of Lauren James on the bench. As Hayes revealed earlier this week, James has been going through a lot of individual training to get over her injury concerns and is finally ready to join the group in training and in games. While she was included in the matchday squad, no minutes were planned for her — for now.


With City matching up Chelsea’s shape — Weir often pushed up alongside Hemp to turn their nominal 3-5-2 into a 3-4-3, — the first 10 minutes were rather chaotic. Both teams were able to advance and threaten on their left flanks, with Hemp and Weir winning their individual duels and combining well for City and Reiten, Kirby and Ingle making things tick for Chelsea. However in the next 10 minute period, City were able to edge things in possession and threat, successfully disrupting Chelsea’s buildup and recovering possession high up the pitch. Chelsea were pinned back and unable to sustain possession or escape with quick breaks.

City fashioned some dangerous situations: Weir ran in behind but stumbled in her attempt to bring the ball down and shoot. Ellen White was put off just enough by Eriksson after Hemp got in behind Carter and found space for a cross. When Chelsea did get up the pitch, we were able to generate some good chances from set pieces and crosses to create headed chances, but Nouwen and Kirby failed to get them on target.

As City pushed up, they left space behind, which Cuthbert and Kerr used to full effect — Kerr in particular finding a lot of joy on the right by making runs spinning outside the center backs and running into the space between Hemp and Stokes. One such run led to the corner from which Chelsea broke the deadlock.

Having watched Reece James unleash a couple of thunderbolts on Saturday and not wanting to be left out of the party, Cuthbert ran in from the edge of the box, collected a low Reiten corner and struck a sweet, sweet volley which rocketed past the City goalkeeper at the near post. While Kerr, Kirby and Harder are rightly getting all the plaudits, Cuthbert has quietly made a habit of being a difference-maker in big games. She scored the first goal of the season in the league against Arsenal to equalize at 1-1, and has scored crucial openers against Juventus and City. Her ability to strike the ball cleanly from range and put it on target adds another dimension to our attack.

Having taken the lead, Chelsea seemed to come out of our shell. We now pressed and harassed City high up the pitch to great effect and won more of our individual duels. We also were able to find vertical options. Nouwen in particular continues to show an ability to pick people out and break lines. The only potential danger was not making this period of dominance count, and thanks to Leupolz, we didn’t make that mistake.

Leupolz gathered up a loose ball at the top of the box and put her laces through it with her left foot. The ball bounced in front of the goalkeeper and nestled into the bottom corner. Even with the two-goal cushion completely knocking the wind out of City’s sails, Chelsea continued to push for another. A flurry of chances came Chelsea’s way in the last 15 minutes of the first half but we just weren’t able to find a third goal. Kerr, Kirby and Cuthbert all came very close, with Kirby finding all kinds of spaces in between lines. Karima Taieb certainly earner her keep between the sticks and stopped Chelsea from running away with it.

The makeshift City defense were particularly exposed during set pieces, as Chelsea were able to regularly make first contact with the ball. With the quality that Reiten and Cuthbert have in delivering the ball, its a surprise that we didn’t score through a corner or other set piece in this game.

As half time beckoned, City were able to get into the Chelsea half and cause some chaos but the half ended without any significant events.

Manchester City v Chelsea - Vitality Women’s FA Cup - Semi Final - Academy Stadium Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

City changed their shape back to the usual 4-3-3 for the second half by taking off Bunny Shaw and putting on Jess Park to play on the right wing. Ellen White moved into the center forward role with Hemp pushed up to play as a proper winger. However, this change of shape didn’t bring them any more luck than they had before. While Hemp and Weir often combined well and posed a threat, they were not able to come up with the final ball.

Chelsea continued to create chances at a regular pace, peppering the City goal and holding City at arm’s length. The ease with which Chelsea were able to navigate this game against rivals who had pushed us to the wire in both of the last two seasons was unexpected to say the least. While a lot of that had to do with City’s injured missing — including the likes of Chloe Kelly, Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Ellie Roebuck — no cup tie is easy. If players lose concentration or lack intensity, even a depleted team can hurt you, especially coming off an international break.

Fortunately, Cuthbert’s goal had shifted the momentum of the game firmly in Chelsea’s favor, and we never looked back. This meant that the second half turned into a non-event, though Bethany England did add a third just for good measure.

Chelsea also changed to a 4-3-3 later on, calling it a day early for the likes of Kerr, Kirby, Reiten and Leupolz, with England, Charles, Spence and Fleming coming on to close out the game. Substitutes Fleming and Charles combined well, creating situations where they were able to release one another in behind the backline. In one such situation, Charles picked the ball up, kept it under pressure, and found Ingle who released Fleming down the line with a wonderful dinked pass. Fleming then shaped a beautiful cross that England met with a bullet header, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance. If the conclusion wasn’t foregone already, it was now.

Manchester City v Chelsea - The Vitality Women’s FA Cup Semi Final Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

This game was by far the strongest and most comfortable for the back-three have looked, and the midfield combination of Ingle and Leupolz worked quite well too — although one wonders if that is because City didn’t have a forward whose pace could threaten us.

Nouwen continues to make a strong case for more minutes with every passing game. She got into good positions when dealing with crosses, though she still had some weak clearances and indecisive moments. None of these seem like issues that won’t be worked out with more playing time and the more she adapts to her new role. Jess Carter, the player Nouwen is trying to displace, played as a wingback to deal with Hemp’s industry and athleticism and while she had some strong moments going forward, her defending was much less confident. She lost out on too many individual duels and it is no surprise that all of City’s threat came down her flank. While her pace allows her to recover, she needs to be stronger in her individual duels.

Cuthbert was named player of the match and rightly so. Her tenacity combined with her wonderful technique and ability to keep the ball under intense pressure makes her particularly suited to games like this. Her ability to play multiple positions very well allows Hayes a lot of tactical flexibility. The positives her and Reiten bring as wingbacks makes it worth the effort to try and make this formation work.

Chelsea can now look forward to a Cup-Final Sunday at Wembley against arch rivals Arsenal on December 5. This will afford us a wonderful opportunity to avenge the loss on opening day in the league, serve as another yardstick for the development of the new-look defense and midfield, and most importantly, a chance to add yet another piece of silverware to the trophy cabinet!

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