Chelsea will look to defend their FA Women's Cup title against Arsenal at Wembley next month, having nicked a win in their semi-final with Manchester City right at the death.
Fran Kirby scored in the dying seconds of extra time to avoid a penalty shootout, meaning the Blues are 90 minutes away from retaining what was their first ever piece of silverware.
Too messy, not enough Messi
Both sides were slow to start, arguably neither of them hit top gear at any point during the 120 minutes. City started stronger, seeing much more of the ball but never quite finding the right end product.
Chelsea only really sparked to life after the half way point in the first half; Eni Aluko with a driving run down the left, riding challenges, but her power-strike was blocked before it could trouble Karen Bardsley. It was slow but the hosts were warming into the game, almost everything taking place in midfield, neither team with the quality to test the women between the sticks – although Hedvig Lindahl was calmly claiming anything that came through to her.
Half time arrived rather unceremoniously, with very little to split the two teams, City with more of the ball, Chelsea with more of the quality. Both teams were clearly up for the game they just seemed like they were still in pre-season - the plethora of clumsy fouls all the evidence you could need.
Chelsea came out for the second half with more impetus, but the game continued to drag; half chances not taken, shots scuffed and heavy challenges. A moment or magic or a moment of lunacy seemed to be the only way there’d be a goal.
Emma Hayes shuffled her players, Drew Spence coming on for Jade Bailey who’d somehow managed to avoid a caution for any number of poorly-timed challenges.
Another foul, another free kick, the ball pinging around and hoofed clear. At the other end, another foul, another free kick, Lindahl claiming with ease.
No matter where the ball was, there was always a dark blue and a sky blue shirt near it as two of the best drilled teams in the league clashed. Though they are also two teams with the deadliest attacks, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were still on international duty.
Goals bring things to life
The breakthrough finally came on 71 minutes. City, with their umpteenth corner, sent a good ball into the area that pinged around before Jane Ross eventually poked it over the line. The City fans – who’d been far louder than the Chelsea fans – were in full voice, the stands rocking as a huge 15 minutes were to be required from Chelsea.
The goal was enough to light the fire under Chelsea. They pushed City further back, started exploiting the space more and when Kirby came on for a tiring Karen Carney you could sense that an equaliser was coming. Gemma Davison was growing more and more influential in the game - as the visitors were tiring she was still running, full speed at the sagging backline.
That should have been enough of a warning for Nick Cushing. With a lead to protect, the introduction of Jennifer Beattie could have shored up the midfield and added strength to break up attacks. However, there would be no movement on his bench until after Chelsea found their equaliser.
Messy. The word that perfectly summed up the game. It wasn’t pretty, and as one team struggled to hang on the other surged, the fouls that had been rife throughout were still persisting. Messy.
It didn’t take long for Kirby to start linking up with a seemingly fresh Davison. The former Reading player was well marshalled by two defenders, freeing up space for Davison, and a perfectly weighted lay off had City scrambling in front of Bardsley.
There was almost everyone in the City half as Chelsea attacked, and even their attempts to counter and carry the ball to safety proved futile, as the Blues came right back at them with it.
Fouls, left, right and centre
One foul, let go. Another one, much more obvious but let go. Chelsea were on the charge and, when Gilly Flaherty was felled just outside of the box, a chance appeared from a dead ball.
The clock read 85 minutes played. It was in the 85th minute that Ji So-Yun had scored for Chelsea last year when the two met under the same circumstances.
The South Korean stood over the ball and, déjà vu. The Chelsea fans suddenly found their collective voice, Wheatsheaf Park rocking with their chants. A whistle, a run up, the back of the net rippling. Déjà vu. The stadium erupted with noise for Ji. Four minutes left and it was 1-1.
Cushing made a substitution as Georgia Stanway came on for Toni Duggan, but it was almost too late in the day. From then on, everything was Chelsea. They were the only side who saw the ball, the only fans who could be heard. Chelsea had their tails up, a bit between the teeth and they could smell blood.
Another free kick, Ji once more, Scott cleared it and Davison’s follow up blazed over the bar – it had taken almost 90 minutes but we finally had a game. Chelsea looked sharp and City looked spent, but the Sky Blues held on, tired legs fighting for extra time. Another change was made by the visitors, with Beattie replacing Daphne Corboz.
Unsurprisingly it was Chelsea who started brightly, Aluko and Kirby linking on the left, forcing a save from Bardsley at her near post. A Chelsea corner – their second of the game – still looking dangerous and as a strong City boot cleared as far away as possible.
A quick cross from Kirby put the ball on the spot for a sliding Aluko, who made contact but sent the ball straight at Bardsley as the pair collided. Pressure and more pressure from the hosts.
Finally City earned some breathing room, Parris went on the break and was caught from behind to win a free kick in a dangerous area. Asllani sent it to the back post to find Steph Houghton. With a flick, she picked out Beattie who stuck a toe at it and Lindahl got down quickly to save at her near post.
Into the second half of extra time, with players going down and staying down. Kirby and Davison hounded the City backline, Davison still ran at the defence as if she’d only just come on and Kirby was understandably fresh. Ji shot straight at Bardsley, Davison curled one just wide of the far post and Lucy Bronze and co’ were throwing everything in front of their goal.
Jill Scott and Nikita Parris had enough in the tank for another attack, winning a corner for their troubles. Jane Ross' header went straight at Lindahl, however. With four minutes left, it was a surprise they didn’t just try to keep it by the flag, but that’s not the City way.
Ji had a deflected shot, gratefully held by Bardsley, but City unable to clear their lines and Spencer shot well over the top of the bar. Momentary relief for the visitors, but Chelsea had hounded the ball down once more and were attacking again.
Kirby cut through the back line, riding tired challenges and went one-on-one with Bardsley as Houghton, Bronze and Abbie McManus all tried to stop the attacker, but no one was stopping Kirby. Any roof that may have ever been at Wheatsheaf Park blown clear off as the fans celebrated, City players were dejected as the Blues knew they were Wembley bound.
Beaten but battling Sky Blues
Just like so many teams before them (like Notts County against Arsenal in the quarter final) City never looked like scoring after the hosts equalised but they dug deep to stay alive. It was incredibly harsh to lose with twenty seconds left on the clock and not even go through the agony of a penalty shoot-out.
City are perilously short on depth but this was certainly not their finest performance. The feeling around is that Chelsea are nailed on for the title, but City – even when far from their best – are still capable of beating teams. It doesn’t look so straight-forward, but the Citizens really look like they’re missing Izzy Christiansen.
Chelsea fighting to retain their crown
Whilst I’d argue that City at least deserved a shoot-out there really can be no doubt that Chelsea were the team who deserved to progress on the day. They started very slowly and still didn’t produce their best but they did enough.
Emma Hayes clearly has a wealth of attacking skill in her side and is trying to balance everyone out; Aluko, Carney, Davison, Kirby and Ji all on the pitch at once could be too much, too cluttered. However, Kirby really did push the Blues on when she entered the fray, the young striker so effortless in her link-up with both Aluko and Davison.
This is a team that will never be shy of goals, however Hayes decides to set her side up.
Arsenal await Chelsea in the final, although the Blues will be favourites to win back-to-back FA Cup’s, no one should ever overlook Arsenal and their ability to win silverware.