The Blues have reached the final of the Continental League Cup for the first time, as Maren Mjelde’s brilliant late winner saw off Manchester United in a tense semi-final.
The Norwegian was the match-winner when the two sides met at Kingsmeadow in November, scoring the only goal of the game, and she proved decisive once again on our first visit to Leigh Sports Village.
Just as in that earlier meeting, it was dead even for two thirds of the contest, but Mjelde has shown a happy knack for popping up with vital goals; as well as her previous effort against United, Blues fans will recall her dramatic late goal to settle our Champions League quarter-final with PSG last term.
We’d barely tested Mary Earps in the opening 70 minutes of this game, aside from a first-half header by Millie Bright which the England international tipped onto the bar, but we finally made the breakthrough following our most incisive attacking move of the match.
Erin Cuthbert was heavily involved as she showed good pace to scamper away down the left and muster up a yard of space from which to clip a cross into the path of the onrushing Mjelde on the far side of the penalty area.
The angle grew increasingly tighter following her first touch, but the Blues No.18 managed to curl her shot beyond Earps and into the far corner. It was a brilliant goal worthy of sealing our spot in the first final of the English domestic season.
We’ll meet Arsenal, who are looking to win the competition for the sixth time, at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground on Saturday 29 February.
Having beaten the Gunners home and away in the league this term, including the recent 4-1 thrashing at Boreham Wood, a hat-trick of victories would put our name on the only domestic trophy we are yet to win under Emma Hayes.
Before that, however, there is plenty of Barclays Women’s Super League action to come and we’ll look to stay in contention for the title when we host West Ham United at Kingsmeadow on Sunday.
After naming a youthful team against Charlton Athletic to start our FA Cup campaign with a 4-0 win on Sunday, Hayes brought in experienced reinforcements as she made six changes to her starting XI, although she was unable to call upon the services of Ji So-Yun and Sam Kerr, who are both on international duty.
Bright, Jonna Andersson, Mjelde, Guro Reiten, Bethany England and Cuthbert were the players brought in as we contested our sixth game of the new year, replacing Jess Carter, Deanna Cooper, Charlotte Fleming, Jamie-Lee Napier, Emily Murphy and Ramona Bachmann.
Hayes sent her side out in a 4-4-2 formation, with Carly Telford lining up behind a back four of Hannah Blundell, Bright, Magdalena Eriksson and Jonna Andersson. Mjelde, who has largely featured at right-back this term, was on the right-hand side of a midfield four also comprising Sophie Ingle, Drew Spence and Reiten. That left Cuthbert to partner top scorer England up front.
It was the fourth time we’d contested a semi-final in the competition’s nine-season history and third in as many campaigns; in each of the previous three we’d been eliminated by Manchester City. This was United’s second time in the last four, as they lost out to Arsenal last year, so one thing was certain: there would be a new Continental League Cup finalist.
Both sets of supporters were making themselves heard in the early stages of this contest at Leigh Sports Village, with the Blues’ visiting contingent more than holding their own despite being outnumbered, but there was very little goal-mouth action to get pulses racing in the opening half.
Reece James has scored a couple of belters in his early days in the Chelsea men’s team this season and his sister Lauren, who plays for the Red Devils, tried to follow suit with the first shot in anger of the contest, which was fired just wide of Telford’s left-hand post.
Both defences were clearly on top in the opening 25 minutes, but Telford was the first keeper called into action as she comfortably dealt with Abbie McManus’s header from a deep free-kick. The centre-back found herself in a spot of both soon afterwards, though, when she lunged in on Cuthbert to concede a foul in a dangerous area.
It was a double whammy for McManus, as she was booked and required lengthy treatment for an injury sustained in making the challenge – and we very nearly took the lead from the resulting set-piece. Cuthbert’s delivery wasn’t properly dealt with, which allowed Bright to power a header at goal which Earps brilliantly tipped onto the crossbar.
As the half drew to a close Chelsea were dominating possession without creating and the home side’s frustration was evident in heavy challenges which left Spence and Ingle on the deck in quick succession. The first was deemed legal by the referee, but the second earned James a yellow card.
Just as in the Barclays Women’s Super League meeting between the sides at Kingsmeadow earlier this season, there was very little to separate us and we went in goalless at the break – but the opening 10 minutes of the second half offered plenty of encouragement for both sides.
United almost struck first when Telford failed to claim a cross under pressure and Lizzie Arnot headed the ball towards goal, although there was plenty of cover from the Blues defenders to divert it away to safety. The response from Hayes’s side was swift, as we went straight up the other end and Reiten drilled a low shot which was inches wide of the target.
Things were starting to heat up and the home crowd were livid after an overzealous challenge from Eriksson left Zelem needing treatment, earning our skipper a yellow card in the process. The tackles continued to fly in and United appealed in vain for a penalty when Jess Sigsworth went down inside the penalty box under pressure from Bright.
The game was firmly in the balance going into the final 20 minutes, but the Blues conjured up our best attack of the match to get our noses in front. Cuthbert was the creator, breaking clear down the left and clipping a cross to the far side of the box to Mjelde, whose touch looked to have made the angle too tight to finish. Somehow, under pressure from a defender, the Norwegian managed to find a gap past Earps to curl a sensational finish into the far corner. Cue frenzied celebrations in the away end.
It had taken seven minutes longer than the 65 it took to break United’s resolve in the league fixture between the sides earlier this term, and the goal really knocked the stuffing out of Casey Stoney’s side as they struggled to create anything of note in the closing stages.
Cuthbert drew a fine save out of Earps as we looked to make the game safe, but in the end one goal was enough to send us into the final of the Continental League Cup. It’ll be an all-London affair against the Gunners after they narrowly saw off Manchester City in the other semi-final.
We’re back at Kingsmeadow on Sunday for another London derby as we host West Ham United in the WSL. Click here to buy your tickets now!
Manchester United (4-3-3) Earps; A Turner, McManus (Harris 82), M Turner, Smith; Ladd, Zelem, Groenen; Sigsworth, James, Arnot (Ross 76)
Unused subs Mikalsen, Okvist, May
Booked McManus 34, James 45+1, Sigsworth 74
Chelsea (4-4-2) Telford; Blundell, Bright, Eriksson (c), Andersson; Mjelde, Ingle, Spence (Murphy 90+2), Reiten; England, Cuthbert
Unused subs Berger, Carter, Cooper, Napier
Scorer Mjelde 72
Booked Ingle 27, Eriksson 57