An added time tap in from Beth England snatched the Continental League Cup trophy from Arsenal after Leah Williamson looked to have exorcised the ghost of her missed penalty in last season’s shootout by equalising in the 85th minute. It was devastation for Arsenal who sunk to the turf on the final whistle. Sloppy Arsenal defending allowed England to to give Chelsea the lead inside 10 minutes, but Williamson sent the Arsenal bench wild when their heavy spell of pressure looked to have paid off and delivered extra-time. But this is a Chelsea team that never say die, having come from behind nine times in the Women’s Super League this season, and up popped England to earn Chelsea their first ever League Cup.
When the team sheet arrived there was concern for Arsenal fans. Joe Montemurro could only name four outfield players on his bench, including two 17-year-olds and a 16-year-old.
Injuries to England winger Beth Mead, Scotland duo Jen Beattie and captain Kim Little and defensive midfielder Lia Wälti have devastated Arsenal’s squad.
There was a sense of deja vu to the narrative. With Montemurro’s penchant for a small squad rocked by a freak injury crisis last season, Arsenal travelled to Bramall Lane for a backs-against-the-wall battle with Manchester City. Then, unfit Vivianne Miedema was the only senior outfield player seated alongside the manager and although Arsenal forced penalties, they fell at the final hurdle in a shootout. This time it was defender Leonie Maier who would provide the best depth from the dugout.
That injury crisis was apparently not the freak one off Montemurro had hoped it would be though and a swathe of the squad again find themselves licking their wounds in the stands.
Arsenal suffered an eighth minute sucker-punch as left-back Jonna Andersson found right-back Maren Mjelde at the far post. Mjelde headed down to England who swivelled and struck low past Manuela Zinsberger.
It was just reward for England, whose reliance was praised by her manager prior in the buildup. “You’ve got to have hardships. I think too often, players think they’re going come through their journeys and it’s a straight route to the top,” said Hayes.
“She was never ready in her first year here and needed that loan. Beth got her head down, did well for Liverpool, came back in and was a much more well-rounded player, and as a result of that she can compete with star names, per se, with confidence and she’s gone on ever since.”
However this was not an Arsenal side likely to buckle as easily as they did at Borehamwood last month, where a 4-1 bruising was kickstarted by a flurry of three goals inside twenty minutes. In a chilly City Ground, Montemurro had ditched his attempt to outfox Hayes by dropping his wingers for a more centrally focused attack, instead restoring much more familiar width to their attack.
It worked. A much more even passage of play ensued, with Arsenal perhaps having the edge but ruing missed chances.
Shortly after falling behind the players looked aggrieved to have not been awarded a penalty after Leah Williamson’s feet were taken out from underneath her by Ji So-yun, but they regrouped, a sweeping cross from Katie McCabe finding the head of centre back Louise Quinn only for Ann-Katrin Berger, who saved a penalty in Chelsea’s 3-3 draw with league leaders Manchester City last Sunday in the Super League, to palm away smartly at her far post.
Despite their lead, Chelsea looked to be losing the midfield battle. So much so that Hayes could be seen passing notes to Mjelde late in the half.
Perhaps it was emotions getting in the way. This was Chelsea’s first League Cup final and, with Hayesdonning a green coat in tribute to idol Brian Clough as promised, it was a title they badly wanted. “I’ve seen a determination this season that perhaps I haven’t seen in previous years. This is a trophy we are desperate to get our hands on,” she said pre-game.
This is a competition that has been kind to five-time winners Arsenal, and to Montemurro, who lifted it within three months of taking over from Pedro Martínez Losa in 2017. “Finals are obviously one off matches,” he had said in his programme notes. “There are no second chances. The team that controls their emotions and tempo the best will make the least mistakes and most likely win.”
They would be words to haunt the manager. Despite the Arsenal forward line flooding the Chelsea half time and time again the equaliser that would amend for the sloppy defending that had allowed England in early on seemed elusive.
However, after a lengthy pause for an injury to Berger, Arsenal bounced the resulting corner into the box for Williamson to divert from six yards. It was a short lived celebration though, England killed the Arsenal come back.