Chelsea Ladies (So Yun 85′, Kirby 120′) 2-1 City Women (Ross 72′)
Competition: FA Women’s Cup
Venue: Wheatsheaf Park, Staines (att: 2,278)
Date: 17 April 2016 (14:00)
City Women’s hopes of appearing in their first ever FA Cup Final were dashed in the dying seconds of Sunday’s match, as a resilient Chelsea came from behind to nick the tie at the death. The Blues had the better of a scrappy, tense affair, and deservedly went ahead with twenty minutes left thanks to Jane Ross’s third goal of the season. Chelsea forced the game into extra time, however, and with a vociferous home support cheering them on, ultimately did enough to get to Wembley for the second season running, leaving City’s dream of getting to the national stadium in tatters.
Nevertheless, City must take heart from their performance and grit, if not the result; Chelsea have one of the best, if not the best, squads in the WSL, and as the current holders of the FA Women’s Cup, they were always going to put up a strong fight. City fell at this stage last season, once more succumbing to Chelsea, and in particular Ji So Yun, who seems to enjoy this competition (the Korean forward scored Chelsea’s winner at Wembley last year, after all).
After a slightly brighter start, City notched the game’s first clear chance, when Abbie McManus fired wide on twenty minutes. With both sides giving away free-kicks – a sign of nerves, perhaps – and Chelsea captain Katie Chapman was the first of many to go into referee Sam Purkiss’s book. The momentum started to tip Chelsea’s way as the first half wore on, with England midfielder Karen Carney testing her namesake Bardsley in the City goal. The Blues’ keeper will have been glad to get back to club football, after a difficult international break.
With seven minutes of the first half left, Blues’ skipper Steph Houghton had a great chance to steer City one step closer to Wembley, curling a trademark free-kick towards the top corner of the Chelsea goal, only for Hedvig Lindahl to prove equal to it. All square at half time, City will have gone in feeling slightly disappointed, having enjoyed more better spells and created better chances.
There was no time for the Blues to feel despondent, however, and City started the second half down in Staines just as brightly as the first, with the excellent Nikita Parris accepting Jill Scott’s through-ball, but choosing unwisely; her powerful shot blazed over. City then had to withstand a few Chelsea scares, with Lucy Bronze once more showing her mettle by blocking a Carney header on the hour mark. A few minutes later, Toni Duggan almost put City noses ahead with a hooked near-post effort, only for the chance to hit the side netting.
It fell to Scotland striker Ross to finally put the Blues in front on 72 minutes, with an ugly, pinball-in-the-box type of goal. Ross and City didn’t care about the lack of finesse; they had one foot in Wembley, and the task for the next twenty minutes was simply to hold on. Chelsea boss Emma Hayes reacted immediately to her side conceding, putting on crucial substitute Fran Kirby for Carney. Nerves abounded around Wheatsheaf Park and on Twitter for MCWFC, and the sucker-punch we were all dreading occurred five minutes from time, as So Yun once again stepped up to the plate to haunt us, placing an excellent free-kick perfectly beyond a helpless Bardsley, ensuring the game went to extra time.
With Georgia Stanway (of Goal of the Month fame) and the newly-returned-from-injury Jennifer Beattie subbed on, City had fresh legs for the extra half-hour, but were up against a Chelsea side buoyed by their home crowd, and full of extra momentum. Eni Aluko had extra time’s first real effort; played in by Kirby, she shot straight at Bardsley. City were beginning to hang on, as Chelsea’s home advantage worked against the Blues. Birthday girl Gemma Davison saw an effort go wide, as the London club threw wave upon wave of pressure on the Blues. Scott had a chance to steal the game for City, but her header was stopped on the line by Lindahl. Just as penalties seemed inevitable, Kirby pounced, getting behind City’s defence to slot home. After a dogged, defiant display, and with a chance to play in a Wembley Cup Final at stake, it was a cruel way for City to go out.
What’s especially unfair is the fact this game wasn’t played at a neutral venue. As Houghton told BBC Sport after the match, ‘[an] FA Cup semi-final at Staines doesn’t sit right with me. It should be a neutral venue… I don’t understand the reason, how somebody can get an advantage at home.’ Last season, City Women were beaten fairly and squarely by Chelsea at Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park, a neutral (although still pretty southern) ground. Let’s take nothing away from Chelsea Ladies, who fought in this game with as much skill and determination as City Women did. But playing at home gives you an advantage, simple as. The semi-finals of the FA’s flagship women’s football competition should be played at neutral venues, there’s no excuse. It’s no wonder that the two away teams in this round – City and Sunderland – both faced long trips to the capital, and both made the long trip back up north with their Wembley dreams dashed.
To be fair to Chelsea Ladies and their fans – who didn’t decide to play at home, remember – they showed their appreciation for the Blues faithful, praising the City fans’ support. Although City will be disappointed, having conceded and been defeated for the first time this season, they should take a lot from the spirit they showed this game. Ross’s form at the moment is particularly pleasing; she is starting to pick up goals, and hopefully this ruthlessness will continue. Chelsea face Arsenal, who thrashed Sunderland 7-0 in the other semi-final, at Wembley on 14 May. City will look to bounce back in the WSL away to Birmingham next Sunday.
— Jonathan Brown (@jonasanbrown) April 17, 2016
Chelsea Ladies: Lindahl, Blundell, Bright, Flaherty, Davison, Carney (Kirby 75), Aluko, So Yun, Rafferty (England 82), Chapman (c), Bailey (Spence 53)
Unused subs: Spencer, Borges
Bookings: Chapman, Carney
City Women: Bardsley, Stokes, McManus, Houghton (c), Bronze, Corboz, Asllani, Scott, Duggan (Stanway 86), Parris, Ross
Unused subs: Hourihan, Beattie, Tynan, Paul
My Player of the Match: Kirby had such an effect on this game, it has to be her. For City, it was hard to pick the best out of a true team effort, but Houghton always leads by example.