Arsenal 1-0 Chelsea: Gunners retain Conti Cup title in dramatic extra time finish
Photo by James Baylis - AMA - Getty Images

Arsenal retained their Conti Cup in a repeat of last season's final when Stina Blackstenius found the difference in the 116th minute of a cagey 1-0 affair at Molineux Stadium.

The Swedish international crowned a brilliant tournament in which she finished top goalscorer by slotting the ball beyond a helpless Hannah Hampton to the backcloth of red and white ecstacy.

For Chelsea, it spells an early ending to any chances of a quadruple in the Emma Hayes farewell tour, with the Gunners earning the first silverware of the 2023/24 campaign.

  • Story of the match

Jonas Eidevall made just one change to the Arsenal side that beat Aston Villa 3-1 just a week ago, but the decision to leave Alessia Russo on the bench raised many eyebrows, with competition top goalscorer Stina Blackstenius was given a nod instead.

Meanwhile, Emma Hayes rang a host of changes after a midweek reshape saw The Blues progress to the final four of the Champions League.

Hannah Hampton, Niamh Charles, Melanie Leupolz, Lauren James, Sjoeke Nusken, and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd were all reinstated for the first shot at silverware of the 2023/24 season.

In an afternoon that promised narratives of redemption and glory, in the final chapter of the intoxicating Hayes-Eidevall rivalry, it was the reliable source of Lauren James who came closest to opening the scoring inside 10 minutes.

After pipping Leah Williamson to the ball, the England international takes a touch into the box before fizzing a shot into the outstretched glove of Manuela Zinsberger.

James, again, posed a threat to the Gunners backline shortly after when - owing much to Chelsea's sustained possession - she linked up with Mayra Ramirez again before going down in the box, to no avail of a penalty shout.

Arsenal had chances of their own, with Cloe Lacasse taking the next shot at goal. But while her effort whistled high and wide of Hampton's left post, the Gunners found joy with long balls in behind the Chelsea defence.

But they were handed a lifeline in the 21st minute when Mayra Ramirez' goal was chalked off after Erin Cuthbert was deemed to have handled the ball in the buildup.

The disallowed goal seemed to provide Arsenal with a wakeup call. Following the VAR stoppage, Eidevall's side pressed with more urgency and enjoyed a better share of the chances around the half hour mark.

Blackstenius' shot towards the near post was saved following another swift counterattack, before Katie McCabe's speculative effort was tipped over and her volley in the resulting corner flew wayward. 

Lauren James continued to pull the strings at the other end when her latest foray forward was met by a congested Gunners box, leading to an end to end finish to the first 45 minutes. 

With nothing to split the two sides heading into the break, James' drive into the box was quickly responded to by a delicate flick at the other end to no result. 

Second half

A scrappy start to the second period left much to be desired for either side in a 10 minute period where the defences had the upper hand once more.

Under the Molineux floodlights, the game was begging for a hero to step up and write themselves into League Cup folklore. But while Lauren James persisted to be the best attacking player up until the 60th minute, her strike into the side netting summarised a lack of cutting edge from both London clubs.

The Blues came close again when Cuthbert's floated free-kick into the box was headed inches wide by Melanie Leupolz. 

Ramirez had her attempt blocked in the following corner as Arsenal held on.

Up at the other end, the Gunners were offered a gilt-edged opportunity to open the scoring. In the clearest chance of the afternoon, Cloe Lacasse found herself one on one with Hampton, who thwarted the Canadian to keep the tie goalless. 

It was Lacasse's last action before she made way for Caitlin Foord, with Emma Hayes joining Eidevall in the attack-minded roll of a dice by bringing on Guro Reiten in the late stages of normal time.

With 10 minutes left, the game reverted back to its sloppy, stagnant tempo that followed after the break.

In the 85th minute, James looked to put an end to the cagey affair. After gallivanting down the left wing, a rare sight of space in the Arsenal defence offered an opportunity to test Zinsberger, who did brilliantly to palm the shot wide from six yards.

Still, nothing separated the two sides as the clock dwindled down to ninety. Arsenal continued to find space from long balls in behind, with Blackstenius being closed down well by Hampton, but the fixture looked dead set on going into extra time.

In added time, Charles' cross-come-shot landed on the roof of the net before an off-the-ball incident saw lengthy stoppage to allow the necessary precautions to ensure Frida Maanum got the right medical attention.

Extra time

Marred by the worries of Maanum, play continued and entered extra time. Uncertain about how each sets of players would react, the Arsenal end came together for a touching rendition of 'North London Forever'.

On the pitch, late addition Alessia Russo tried to turn the encouragement into a result, but her effort from afar could only find the gloves of Hannah Hampton.

Chelsea sought a fast transition up the other end, but the offside flag halted proceedings.

In the next opportunity, the Arsenal fullbacks linked up to carve another golden opening.

Steph Catley's cross met the head of Katie McCabe, whose attempt bobbled agonisingly wide of the target.

Arsenal, throughout extra time, were the better side, and Blackstenius' looping volley upon the restart for the second half was another sign of wastefulness from advantageous positions.

James responded with a shot of her own that whipped wide before Arsenal continued their spell of dominance when Foord drove up the pitch and had her shot blocked by Kadeisha Buchanan.

The Gunners had another great counterattacking opportunity thwarted in the 115th minute. With Kyra Cooney-Cross' ball into Foord seemingly perfect, Russo effort from a cutback wasn't enough to trouble Hampton.

But although the game looked to be heading towards the lottery of a penalty shootout, one last strike from Stina Blackstenius would swing League Cup glory in Arsenal's favour.

A crowded Chelsea box couldn't get their sorted out to clear the ball, and the Swedish international found the bottom right corner in the 116th minute to send the Gunners bench and travelling support into raptures.

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