Ladies report: Birmingham City 1 Chelsea 1 (4-2 on pens)
news Mon 17 Apr 2017
Chelsea Ladies were denied a third consecutive trip to Wembley for the Women's FA Cup final after losing an enthralling semi-final to Birmingham City on penalties.
The Blues looked to be heading out in normal time when Megan Sargeant put the home side ahead in the second half, but a brilliant equaliser by Drew Spence sent the game into extra-time. Although we dominated the additional half-hour, we couldn't find a way through Birmingham's dogged rearguard and Eniola Aluko and Millie Bright missed in the subsequent penalty shoot-out as we were condemned to the cruellest of defeats.
Emma Hayes made two changes to her starting XI from the win over Sunderland last month, both of which were enforced. Hedvig Lindahl suffered a minor injury in training during the week, which meant Fran Kitching was brought in to play between the sticks, and there was also a change in defence as the injured Jade Bailey made way for Gilly Flaherty. It was a first start of the season for the centre-back.
With the stakes so high, the match was played out rather cagily in the opening quarter and there was little goalmouth action, although some excellent blocks at both ends were partially responsible for that.
However, as the half went on Chelsea began to look more confident in the attacking third and two chances were fashioned in quick succession. The first fell to Hannah Blundell, scorer of two goals in the previous round, but she could only turn Claire Rafferty's cross over the bar. Then, Katie Chapman's tenacity won us a corner which almost led to the skipper opening the scoring, but her hooked half-volley was just off target.
Chelsea's high press was beginning to have a telling effect on the contest, with Birmingham's defence struggling to retain possession under pressure, but the breaks weren't quite going our way. That was also evident just past the half-hour mark when Rafferty pulled up with what looked to be a hamstring injury. Beth England came on in her place.
Both defences ended the first half on top and it was a similar story after the interval, although an inswinging Birmingham free-kick from out wide almost crept in at the back stick. It was going to take something special or a set-piece to break the deadlock and the moment almost arrived from Crystal Dunn, who embarked on a weaving run to beat two defenders before firing a left-footed shot at goal which Berger brilliantly palmed behind.
The keeper was called into action again by England, but then against the run of play the home side took the lead. A corner kick was swung into a dangerous area and Sargeant climbed highest to head past Kitching.
Chelsea should have been awarded a penalty just two minutes after falling behind, only for the referee to adjudge that Spence was not pushed in the back. It looked to be a clear infringement against the substitute, who had come on for Ji So-Yun just before the concession of the goal.
Dunn was looking the most likely source of an equaliser for the Blues and she was again denied by Berger after a powerful left-footed strike, and the keeper pulled off arguably her best save of the match after Dunn sent Maren Mjelde in on goal.
The introduction of Aluko added another spark to the Chelsea attack and she almost made an instant impact when she pressured Sargeant into her mistake, but her cross was a yard too close to the keeper with Ramona Bachmann lurking. An even better chance fell to England when a free-kick bounced around near the far post and into her path, but she just couldn't turn it home.
That looked to be the end of our FA Cup dream, but this side never knows when it's beaten and Spence conjured up a moment of sheer brilliance to draw us level. The chance looked to have gone when some penalty box pinball resulted in the ball rolling to the edge of the area, but Spence curled an outstanding effort into the far corner to leave Berger rooted to the spot.
That equaliser sent the contest into extra time and the Blues almost took the lead early into the additional half-hour when Mjelde's daisy cutter of a free-kick popped up awkwardly on the keeper, who gathered at the second attempt.
All of the pressure was being applied by Chelsea, who looked to be the fitter side, but with Birmingham defending in numbers there were few clear openings and the first half of extra time ended with the scores still level.
The final 15 minutes of the match began with the Blues in the ascendancy once again, but there was a familiar story when Berger pulled off her latest highlight-reel save to keep out Bachmann's low, left-footed strike from the edge of the box.
There were nervy moments at either end as tired legs took hold, but neither side could find a winner and so it was onto a penalty shoot-out to decide the winners.
Although we got off to a fine start with successful conversions by Mjelde and Blundell, Birmingham were flawless from the spot. Aluko's penalty hit the post with our third effort and then Bright was brilliantly denied by Berger, allowing Ellen White to send the home side into the final, where they will face Manchester City.
Birmingham: Berger, Harrop, Mannion, Sargeant, Williams, Mayling, Carter, Ewers (Stringer 75), White, Ayisi (Wellings 90), Brazil (Westwood 86)
Unused subs: Baggaley, Hegerberg
Scorer: Sargeant 63
Chelsea (3-4-2-1): Kitching; Flaherty, Mjelde, Bright; Blundell, Chapman (c), Ji (Spence 60), Rafferty (England 32); Carney (Aluko 79), Bachmann; Dunn
Unused subs: Cooper, Cuthbert
Scorer: Spence 88