Throwback to Sunday, March 12 as Chelsea faced Manchester United at home in the Women’s Super League (WSL).
Despite the visitors controlling the majority of the game, it was Chelsea who took a 23rd minute lead through Sam Kerr with the goal proving decisive in the match between the title rivals.
Fast forward 63 days later to Sunday, May 14 and both teams are facing each other again – this time in the Women’s FA Cup final and, while Emma Hayes’ Chelsea are Wembley regulars, it was Manchester United’s first-ever appearance under the arches.
Once again, Marc Skinner’s Red Devils began the contest with the bigger conviction and attacking impetus yet it was Chelsea that walked away victorious by a 1-0 scoreline.
The difference between the two games was the fact Chelsea looked jaded throughout, tired from a long season with only short breaks in between games.
“Nobody plays more games than Chelsea, year-on-year,” Hayes said post-match. “It’s really hard.”
“Trust me it is really difficult to play every three days and play high octane football. I thought the first-half we were off everything.”
Hayes isn’t wrong as the tactic to press Manchester United high from kick-off did not work, leading to more spaces for the opposition to create chances they were punished for not taking later on.
What brought the decisive change for Chelsea was the introduction of Pernille Harder and Sophie Ingle just before the hour-mark, switching to a 4-4-2 formation that made it more difficult for United to control both Harder and Kerr.
Hayes later described the Blues’ adaptability as her team being “hybrid monsters” with the switch leading to the winning goal as Kerr converted after a neat cross from Harder, sparking the Australian’s trademark backflip goal celebration.
In truth, the game incorporated Chelsea’s season perfectly: it hasn’t been their best and Kerr hasn’t scored the most goals in the league, the team have had the lowest expected goals of the four top sides yet they are still dangerously clinical and sit top of the table.
It’s an impressive feat considering Chelsea are very much in a state of transition with six different players in the FA Cup final starting line-up compared to the same game last year.
New players as well as young players have been added to the squad with more changes expected in the summer with Harder and Magdalena Eriksson both set to leave at the end of this season.
Much of the upheaval is a knock-on effect from the change of ownership from Roman Abramovich to Todd Boehly which has seen the Men’s team fail to adapt as successfully as Hayes who proclaimed, “Chelsea fans this is for you” on winning the club’s first trophy of the season.
Although much-coveted Champions League glory remains elusive, winning a double by adding the WSL title to the FA Cup would still be a major accomplishment under circumstances that has also seen the side beset by injuries at times.
The outstanding – and maybe a little frightening – aspect about this team has been its ice-cold execution to win and gain points no matter what.
In games where the opposition were clearly better, Chelsea still managed to come back and turn the game around – for instance the recent 2-1 victory over Liverpool at the start of this month.
On top of that, they scored 17(!) goals without reply in their last three WSL outings to overcome the goal difference gap between them and second-placed Manchester United.
Hayes described her side’s recent showing as ‘digging in’ when not at their best and that is exactly what sets them apart from the other top teams to make them WSL champions for three years in a row.
Sitting top with two games to go and two points clear of second, Chelsea have their destiny in their own hands, and, with the scent of silverware once again in their nostrils, it’s hard to see anything else other than a fourth WSL title for Emma Hayes’ side.