Second-half goals from Magdalena Eriksson, Ji So-Yun and Emily Murphy ensured the Blues will be in the draw for the semi-finals of the Continental League Cup.
With a place in the last-four at the stake and the Blues coming up against Championship opposition, albeit one which had tasted victory in 11 of their 12 league fixtures this term, most neutral observers considered the result a foregone conclusion ahead of kick-off.
However, the Villans dug in throughout the first half to leave us frustrated at the interval and a host of chances went begging. The ball rarely left the visiting side’s half during the opening 45 as Bethany England struck the woodwork twice and our finishing was not as accurate as it had been at the weekend, when we fired six goals past Bristol City.
The breakthrough finally arrived with 10 minutes of the second half played and it came from the head of Eriksson, who doubled her goal tally for the season. Having also netted against Lewes in the group stage, she had clearly reserved her shooting boots for the Continental League Cup.
When Ji fired home our second just a few minutes after emerging from the substitutes’ bench, the game looked done and dusted, but there was still another twist to come as the visitors pulled one back with five minutes still to play.
However, Murphy opened her Chelsea account with a proper poacher’s finish after the keeper had pushed the ball into her path in stoppage time. It was a proud moment for the youngster and one which all the players enjoyed.
Although it had been a far sterner test than many may have anticipated, it will hopefully prove to be good preparation for Sunday’s blockbuster Women’s Super League meeting with Arsenal.
The Blues were rampant on Sunday, thrashing Bristol City 6-1 in Emma Hayes’s 200th game as manager, and the starting XI showed only four changes for this last-eight tie in the only domestic competition we are yet to win.
Eriksson, Deanna Cooper, Ramona Bachmann and Sam Kerr were named among the starters in place of Jonna Andersson, Drew Spence, Ji and Guro Reiten. The addition of two defenders to the side meant a reshuffle in personnel, including Millie Bright pushing up into midfield.
Ann-Katrin Berger retained her place in the line-up behind a back four of Hannah Blundell, Jess Carter, Eriksson and Cooper; Erin Cuthbert and Bachmann provided the midfield flair from out wide, either side of the physically dominant Sophie Ingle and Bright; and England and Kerr were selected to lead the line, reuniting the strike partnership which had sparked on the Australian’s league debut against Reading earlier this month.
Bachmann started brightly and saw plenty of the ball in the opening five minutes. She so nearly broke the deadlock with the first meaningful attempt of the contest, spinning inside the penalty box and then unleashing a powerful left-footed strike which whizzed just the wrong side of the post.
A few moments later Kerr, and much of the Kingsmeadow crowd, thought she had opened her account as a Blue after being sent in on goal by a through-ball from England and finishing confidently with the outside of her right boot. Alas, the raised flag of the assistant referee’ confirmed the timing of her run was not quite as precise as the pass which presented her with the chance.
The favour was repaid between the strike partners from our next attack, as Kerr played in England and she smashed a shot at goal which thumped against the crossbar and looked to have bounced over the line. However, on this occasion the assistant referee’s flag stayed down and the match continued, with our No9 still convinced she should have been celebrating her 15th of the campaign.
England was in the thick of it once again when she closed down Sian Rogers as the keeper took her time to deal with a backpass and seemed to have nipped in just before the Villa No1’s sliding challenge made contact with the ball. Referee Louise Saunders remained unmoved, however, as the striker lay in a crumpled heap next to the penalty spot; ironic chants of ‘We want VAR’ rang out around Kingsmeadow in response.
The chances continued to come as we approached the half-hour mark. Eriksson sent a clear headed opportunity over the target, Cuthbert shot wide when well placed and then England saw one close-range effort cleared off the line and another hit the woodwork. Lady Luck was clearly smiling upon the Villans and Bright showed her frustration at the goalless scoreline when she smashed a hopeful effort in stoppage time which flew well off target.
There were no changes of personnel at the break and the Blues continued in the same vein, with Bachmann becoming the latest to strike the frame of the goal, albeit with the angle against her after Rogers had flapped at a cross.
Despite the numerous chances which had gone begging, there was no sign of heads dropping and finally the goal we had been threatening since virtually the first minute arrived – and it was as simple as they come. Cuthbert whipped a corner kick towards the near post, Eriksson’s head appeared to be the first to reach it as several players converged on the ball and the advantage was ours. No one inside Kingsmeadow could deny it was merited.
Having barely threatened all game, Villa suddenly came out of their shell and they were the width of the post away from equalising with their first shot in anger. It was all Sophie Haywood’s own work as she sprinted through the right-hand side of the Chelsea defence and fired at goal. There were audible gasps from the previously jubilant Blues support, although Berger will argue she had the shot well covered.
Normal service immediately resumed as we went back on the offensive, pinning Villa back deep in their own territory. Once again, however, they had a defender in the right place at the right time, this time clearing a goal-bound header from Kerr off the line.
The Australian’s wait for a first Chelsea goal continues, as a couple of minutes later Murphy came on in her place for her third substitute appearance of the season. Jamie Lee-Napier also joined the action soon after as Cuthbert made way for her fellow Scot.
Still we continued to apply the pressure. Ingle stung the palms of Rogers with a rasping left-footed drive from the edge of the box which would surely have been destined for the back of the net had it been a yard either side of the keeper, and then the clincher finally came.
Ji had only been on the field a few minutes when she drilled home a low finish, but all credit must go to the two Blues heavily involved in the build-up. Napier’s positive run from deep cut provided the cutting edge and England’s clever reverse pass opened the door for the South Korean to make it 2-0.
However, there was another twist to come, as Kerri Welsh, who had come on just seconds earlier, became the latest substitute to make a telling contribution as she took advantage of a sloppy backpass to curl a shot past the stranded Berger.
Stoppage time could have been nervy, but a third Chelsea goal arrived and it was a special one for young Murphy. A product of our Academy, the forward showed good poacher’s instincts to react quickest when the keeper fumbled Bright’s drilled cross back into the danger zone – and she certainly enjoyed the moment as we sealed our spot in the semi-finals.
Our next two matches are both away from home, with Sunday’s trip to Arsenal followed by an FA Cup tie at Charlton Athletic, but we’re back at Kingsmeadow on Sunday 2 February for the visit of West Ham United. Click here to buy your tickets now!
Chelsea (4-4-2) Berger; Blundell, Carter, Eriksson (c), Cooper; Cuthbert (Napier 68), Bright, Ingle, Bachmann (Ji 77); England, Kerr (Murphy 66)
Unused subs Orman, Andersson, Wardlaw, Engman
Scorers Eriksson 55, Ji 81, Murphy 90+1
Booked Ingle 76
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1) Rogers; Ale, N’Dow (c), Haigh, Hutton (Welsh 83); Ewers (Hassell 71); Follis, West, Hanssen, Haywood; Hayles (Johnson 63)
Unused subs Kosinka, Richards, Warner
Scorer Welsh 84
Referee Louise Saunders