Arsenal face Chelsea in the Continental Cup final on Saturday evening in what should be a fascinating conclusion to a sometimes maligned competition. Earlier this season Emma Hayes, the Chelsea manager, said she wanted to get rid of it completely and this week she said it was the trophy her team most want to win. I expect she’ll be delighted if her side take the title for the first time.
Chelsea certainly go into the final with the upper hand. Arsenal have lost only four league games since the start of 2019 and three were to Chelsea. In October 2018 Arsenal went to Kingsmeadow, where Chelsea play their home games, won 5-0 and looked in a different class. Last month Chelsea went to Arsenal, won 4-1 and were unbelievable. Their recent performances against the Gunners mean they will have more confidence and they have added motivation, with this being the only domestic title they have not won. Because they’re not in the Champions League I think they would have targeted this trophy from the start and now they are 90 minutes away.
Arsenal won the league last year and have led the way for most of this season but recent defeats by Chelsea and Manchester City mean they are behind in the Women’s Super League and can’t be fussy about where they get silverware. This is a trophy with which they seem to have a special relationship – they have reached seven of the past eight finals and won five – and so far it is one only they and City have won.
Perhaps this will give them a bit of confidence, as will the three goals Chelsea let in in their 3-3 draw with City last weekend, a match that ended a run of five successive clean sheets in all competitions. Chelsea’s defence, and especially Millie Bright, struggled to cope with City’s movement and in particular runs infield from out wide. I think sometimes Chelsea are not comfortable against teams with dynamic movement in attack and in Vivianne Miedema Arsenal have a striker whose movement is exceptional around the box, though she can be static in the buildup.
Arsenal have to cope with injuries to key players, including Beth Mead, who always seems to raise her level, and Kim Little, who is such a key creative force. Jordan Nobbs, who will captain Arsenal for the first time in a cup final, is more of a box-to-box midfielder rather than the kind of player who can set the tempo like Little.
There are several interesting individual battles: between the strikers Miedema and Sam Kerr, Chelsea’s Australia forward, who has not set the world alight since arriving in London at the end of last year but who scored her only goal against Arsenal at Borehamwood. Miedema has hardly stopped scoring in the last couple of seasons but since that 5-0 win nearly 18 months ago she has not made much of an impact against Chelsea and perhaps they have sussed her out a little bit. Kerr will also come up against Arsenal’s own new Australia forward, Caitlin Foord, who is a fast, hard-working, tricky winger, if not quite at her compatriot’s level.
The final will be played at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground and the fixture seems to be touring the nation – last year’s final was in Sheffield, with the two before that in Wycombe and Manchester. It is on the same weekend as the men’s League Cup final, which is obviously played at Wembley. I believe Arsenal and Chelsea would attract significant numbers of fans to the national stadium. A final there would naturally have a higher profile and greater prestige, and show the world the women’s game is being taken seriously.
However there are also some positives to the current arrangement: it leaves the FA Cup final, which will be played at Wembley in May, as the undiluted and uncontested showpiece event of the season, and exposes fans who don’t get to watch elite women’s football on a regular basis to a major occasion featuring top teams (though it was disappointing fewer than 2,500 turned up to see City beat Arsenal on penalties at Bramall Lane last year).
The men’s and women’s League Cups have their critics. Pep Guardiola and Hayes say the competition should be scrapped to allow time for more league fixtures. I think you can never have too much football and it wasn’t long ago there was a problem in the women’s game of having too few teams and too much time between matches.
It’s a useful competition, which teams use to give young players senior competitive football. It also gives clubs outside the WSL a chance to play teams at a higher level. Every club will have a different perspective on the competition, and the pressures Chelsea have to deal with, as a club often in the Champions League and competing to win trophies, are totally different to those facing the majority of clubs in the top two divisions.
The problem with the women’s League Cup is scheduling, with games scattered through the season. To reach the final Arsenal and Chelsea have played ties in September, October, November, December and January. There have been matches on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It is a competition without a natural place in the schedule, so it’s just crowbarred in everywhere.
In a game that is still developing and with clubs trying to build continuity for their fans, to create the habit of coming every week, this can be confusing – you want to present the premium product, which is the league, at a consistent time. It’s not an easy problem to solve but perhaps if the group games were all played in a four-week period, allowing it to be sold as Conti Cup month, it would help fans and players to engage. One thing is for sure, though: by the time teams reach the final engagement is no longer a problem.