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Blues Lift Cup in City Ground Showdown

7 March 20 words: Cristian Bratu
photos: Emma Richardson

Last week saw Arsenal take on Chelsea in the Continental Cup Final. Our guy Cristian Bratu was at the City Ground to catch all the action. 

There was a great deal of anticipation going into my first live women’s football match, the Continental League Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea. It was the first time that the final was held at the City Ground and you could feel the atmosphere enhance more and more as kick-off approached. 

As it was a London derby played in the Midlands, many would have been apprehensive about the turnout, but a 6,743 strong crowd defied the weather and turned up to witness the teams battle it out for the first piece of silverware available in the season. Clappers were handed out around the stadium with the instruction to make as much noise as possible and flags, particularly those brandishing the Chelsea blue, were held aloft as the groundsmen prepared for the players’ arrival to play. 

Both teams named strong sides, headlined by players such as Vivianne Miedema of Arsenal and Chelsea’s Sam Kerr. Under the floodlights, the match had all the elements to become a classic. The decibel levels increased tenfold as the players emerged from the tunnel and the stage was set for what became another great advertisement for the women’s game. The first saw the game become very stretched as both teams attacked in a bid to take the advantage into half time. 

Chelsea started the better of the two sides and enjoyed possession in the opening minutes. They then capitalised on their momentum by opening the scoring within 10 minutes, thanks to a mixture of luck and the clinical Bethany England, who curled the ball into the bottom corner after it bounced kindly for her in the Arsenal box.

Arsenal responded well from going a goal behind and they nearly drew level a few minutes later if it wasn’t for the heroics of Ann-Katrin Berger who clawed a Caitlin Foord header out from the goal line with a strong left hand.  

Chelsea then came close to doubling their lead with 27 minutes played as an Erin Cuthbert cross from the far side connected with England’s head, but the striker was unable to direct her powerful header on target. 

A chipped ball through the Arsenal defence then somehow made its way to Sam Kerr but a smart save by Manuala Zinsberger denied the Australian.  

Shortly after, Kerr’s header from a corner was blocked at the near post. The ball made its way out to Sophie Ingle who’s shot was inches away from connecting with the stretching England.  England was then denied once again in the 44th min after a superb block by Louise Quinn who did extremely well to recover, keeping the score at 1-0 as the half time whistle was sounded. 

Chelsea enjoyed the better of the chances in the first half, but the second half would swing into Arsenal’s favour. The Gunners dominated proceedings in a bid to clinch the equaliser, while Chelsea looked to hit the on the break and played balls in behind of a pushed-up Arsenal defence. Berger’s heroics in the second half would be crucial in the final result, putting her body on the line to deny efforts from Miedema, Louise Quinn and Jordan Nobbs. It was one of Miedema’s efforts, a venomous effort that left Berger needing treatment that led to the corner that ultimately led to Arsenal’s late equaliser. Leah Williamson’s initial header was blocked by a sea of blue but the centre back was first to the rebound and her sliding effort nestled into the bottom corner to the delight of those in red.

That delight would be short-lived however as Arsenal heartbreak came in the form of England, who found herself in the right place at the right time to stab home the winner deep into stoppage time. The roar that followed within the stadium as England sprinted to her teammates just encapsulated the passion that was on show by every individual in attendance, with members of the media jumping to their feet as the ball rippled the net. 

The clappers were used constantly by the fans, the flags were held up throughout and the football was tantalising to watch. If anyone tells you that the women’s game pales in comparison to the men’s, then they obviously have not been to a game live to witness it for themselves. 

As Chelsea lifted the trophy with Emma Hayes standing on the same turf as Brian Clough, you could just sense the pride that she felt celebrating in her idol's spiritual home. Speaking in the press conference post-match, Hayes stated: “My sister sent me lists of [Brian Clough] quotes this morning, with my favourite being this one - 'I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one'. "Well, I'm there today. I'll take that today." 

The trophy that Hayes won cements her as one of the greatest coaches in the women’s game by becoming the second female manager to win all three domestic honours and to do it at the home of Clough will surely help it stand out. 

As first matches go, the fast-paced, attacking football on show, coupled with the enthusiasm and the passion in the stands, it has to be up there as one of the best.

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