Still buzzing after their FA Cup final victory against Manchester United, Chelsea come back down to reality with a bump on Wednesday night as they travel across town to face West Ham. This is the famous ‘game in hand’ which could see the Blues leapfrog United and take top spot in the WSL ahead of
Still buzzing after their FA Cup final victory against Manchester United, Chelsea come back down to reality with a bump on Wednesday night as they travel across town to face West Ham.
This is the famous ‘game in hand’ which could see the Blues leapfrog United and take top spot in the WSL ahead of Sunday’s crunch clash against Arsenal at Kingsmeadow.
On paper, a meeting with the Irons looks a formality. West Ham have never beaten Chelsea in the WSL, and every away game against the Hammers has ended in a win by at least a two-goal margin.
But this is the fag end of the season, and odd results regularly occur. Emma Hayes will be saving first-teamers’ strength for Sunday, knowing that everyone will then have the rare luxury of a week’s break until the final game at Reading on May 27.
Already the new-look side for 2023-24 is taking shape. Magda Eriksson and Pernille Harder (the sub who teed up Sam Kerr for the winner at Wembley) are brushing up their French to move to Lyon in the summer as their contracts run out, while Chelsea will hear more German spoken as midfielder Sjoeke Nusken will join on July 1 from Eintracht Frankfurt on a three-year deal to link up with compatriots Ann-Katrin Berger and Mellie Leupolz.
The 22-year-old said: “English football is very cool to play in, and it’s the right thing to do now. I’m very excited and happy to be at Chelsea and I’m looking forward to next season.”
Manager Hayes admires the German international’s “ability to play the ball deep into the opponents’ half, her standout strength, interceptions and reading of the game”. Four other current squad players are set to leave this summer in a major refresh of the Blues’ squad.
The Chelsea manager knows that a league and cup double is within her grasp, but is also conscious that the Gunners will do all in their power to thwart her at the weekend.
Last Sunday, a tight, tense Wembley cup final was settled when Kerr scored the only goal in the balmy north London sunshine to prevent United winning their first trophy.
United manager Marc Skinner said his team “switched off for a moment” and were punished. It came in the 68th minute… a quarter of an hour after astute substitutions by Hayes saw Harder replace Jessie Fleming, and Sophie Ingle come on in place of Leupolz.
A long throw-in from Eve Perisset bypassed the United midfield, allowing Guro Reiten to feed the advancing Harder. She squared to Kerr, who fired the ball home with the outside of her right boot… a shot so fraught with miskicking potential that Hayes later said it gave her and the Chelsea coaching staff the heebie jeebies.
What followed, as the Blues saw out the remaining quarter of the match with a model exercise in professional game management, has to be seen in the context of playing three matches a week for the past month with a squad on the brink of exhaustion.
Yet Hayes knows that good results against Arsenal this weekend and Reading next, in the final match of the season, could crown coronation year with a double triumph at a time when the improved standards of all Women’s Super League sides make such attainments more and more difficult.
“We’ve trained for doing that,” said the Blues gaffer after receiving her winner’s medal from Prince William, confirming that skilful management of the dying stages of a match is a mini artform in itself.
Hayes dedicated the cup victory to Chelsea’s long-suffering fans, who have endured a torrid season as the men’s side, shorn of confidence and bedevilled by managerial and ownership changes, have fallen well short of expectation.
“This team will just dig and dig and dig,” said Hayes of her team’s performance after weathering all-out assaults by United’s Leah Galton, Nikita Parris and Alessia Russo in a first half which left her frustrated and concerned.
But it was central defender Maren Mjelde who delivered the killer team talk at half-time in the Wembley dressing room, focusing her team-mates on the task ahead and inspiring a turnabout in the second 45 minutes.
When Kerr stabbed home the only goal, the blue end of the stadium (rocking with 77,390 spectators) eruptured in a flurry of flag-waving and cheering which intensified as the Aussie striker celebrated with her special-occasion cartwheel and backflip routine.
“I’ve never coached a player like Kerr – such confidence, conviction and courage,” said Hayes. “But without Pernille she wouldn’t have got that goal. Kerr is so alive to situations!”