LONDON — For years, there was an inevitability about Chelsea drawing Manchester City when both were in a cup semifinal, the two seemingly destined not just to always knock the other out but to never actually meet in a final. In some way, it was that same inevitability that led to Hayley Raso’s 89th minute equaliser at Wembley to send the game to extra time, both teams bonded to each other, maybe even suffering from football’s version of quantum entanglement.
For two teams so linked, sometimes Chelsea in the role of City’s shadow, other times City left to trail in Chelsea’s wake, the only surprise was that the match didn’t go all the way to penalties. Sam Kerr’s solo goal in the first half of extra time was the crowbar necessary to prise the two apart, taking Chelsea through to their fourth FA Cup title and their first consecutive domestic double.
Chelsea and Man City have gotten into the habit of pushing each other all the way, save for challenges from a historically dominant Arsenal team, and the final was the showpiece the women’s game deserved. There had been FA Cups before this one, some contested between two teams at the top, some pushed to penalties, but none in memory had brought about so many first rate goals. It was the final the previous one — a hearty Chelsea win over Arsenal at the start of December — had threatened to be, and for the last competitive top flight women’s football to be played in England before the start of the European Championships this summer, it was the perfect end to the season. The match set a Women’s FA Cup attendance record of 49,094 — seeing over 8,000 more fans in the stands than the previous final.
Speaking ahead of the final, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes had put it simply, “this is a chess match.” The tactical nature of the matchup echoed by her opposite number, owing to the close nature not just of the final but so many of their meetings over the years. Be they light or heavy on goals, the two sides have usually only been narrowly separated, if not tied up. The two big wins for Chelsea earlier in the season, first in the dying stages of last season’s FA Cup and then in their first league clash, were the perfect imbalance of Chelsea near their best and City ravaged by injuries — outliers rather than a new status quo.
The tit-for-tat nature of their meetings continued when the Cityzens came from behind with a trio of second half goals in the league cup final at the start of March. Like the proverbial red buses that run around Wembley, the first meeting in a final was followed by a swift second today, because of course they managed to avoid each other in the semis of both competitions. Maybe the win for Chelsea was always the more likely outcome, call it revenge for the league cup final, or the women’s team spurred on that little more by the men’s side losing their FA Cup final yesterday. Or maybe it’s just the football scales rebalancing themselves, north and south, light blue and dark blue, a cup final win for City and one for Chelsea.
In 2014, on course to claim their first league title, it was a loss to upstarts Man City on the last day of the season that denied Chelsea on what proved to be a feverish day of football. Even when Chelsea claimed their first title the following season, who was it on their heels, chasing them down over the second half of the season, taking the fight all the way to the last day? It could only have been their northern rivals.
In the end, City’s lack of bite in front of goal told, the visitors to the capital had well over double the amount of shots but only the same number on target, the goalkeepers only managing — or needing — to make three saves between them. But those efforts on target the gauntlet laid down by each; Lauren Hemp’s delicious curler only bettered by Erin Cuthbert’s belter.
Always a bittersweet occasion, the Women’s FA Cup final isn’t just about the agony and ecstasy of losing or winning, but falling after the end of the season, it signals the last time players and coaches might walk out with their clubs, one last beautiful memory before the chapter closes. Coming into the final, Chelsea fans knew it would be the last time they would see Ji So-yun, Drew Spence, and Jonna Andersson in Chelsea blue, and there will undoubtedly be more departures from both teams before the start of the 2022-23 season.
That is the nature of football, agony even in those ecstatic moments and although a cup final is only one match, it’s the springboard for the next season, for the endless power struggle between Chelsea and City, for a season that maybe City can lift the title for the first time since 2016, or maybe they’ll be relegated to second behind Chelsea once again.