Emma Hayes praised the winning mentality of her team after Chelsea FC Women booked a place in the Continental Tyres Cup final for the first time in our history with victory at Manchester United.
The Blues were far from our free-flowing best on our first visit to the Leigh Sports Village but Maren Mjelde’s second-half strike was enough to separate the two teams. It secured a place in the Continental Tyres League Cup final at Nottingham Forest's City Ground on Saturday 29 February.
Hayes’ side travelled to Manchester in good form having won every game in January, including a 4-1 win at Arsenal - who also reached the Conti Cup final courtesy of a 2-1 win over Manchester City.
However, with Sam Kerr and Ji So-Yun now away on international duty and others absent through injury the Blues had to dig deep to get the job done and reach the final. While Hayes was pleased with the way her side adapted to the size of the pitch and the absentees, she admitted her team were not at their best.
‘Everyone knows we’ve stumbled at this stage so to have finally crossed the line, even not at our best, shows we have another side to our game,’ said Hayes.
‘I thought we were terrible, one of the worst performances I’ve seen this season but it was winning football. We took the one good opportunity we had in the game.
‘When you change teams, you lose momentum somewhere because relationships have to re-form. Players when they came in came over to me and said "I was awful tonight". We came through it in a very difficult place - I’m proud of the players for that.
‘When you lose players like Sam Kerr and Ji So-Yun you are going to lose a little something from your team and that is the first time we had to play on a pitch that is humongous so it took an adjustment.
‘I’m proud of the players for coming through a difficult game. There is a real togetherness in the group, a calmness and assuredness and I can see them making the right decisions on the pitch which is dreamland for the coach.
‘The players coming in to the team took a while to adapt but full credit to the players, it’s not easy coming here. The crowd are on top of you and we defended really well and were resilient, although we didn’t create enough going forward but once we got the goal it was comfortable.’
The winning strike was reminiscent of Mjelde’s dramatic late goal to settle our Champions League quarter-final with PSG last term. Erin Cuthbert was heavily involved as she showed good pace on left and mustered up a yard of space 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 into the far corner, a finish which did not surprise Hayes.
‘Maren is known to come up with goals like that from the right-hand side and that is why the fans love her. She did it against PSG and she’s done it again.
‘The goal was the only moment of quality, it was something we had worked on and Erin had space for the first time, picked the right pass and it was a wonderful finish. That’s what top players do they can be having bad games but when they get the chance they take it and that is what Maren did.’
Next up for the Blues is the visit of West Ham to Kingsmeadow in the Barclays Women’s Super League, a game the Chelsea boss insists none of her players will be taking for granted.
‘Recovery is key for the players as it is the third game in a week. The league is something we are chasing so we need to get everyone fresh and hope for one or two knocks to recover in time.
‘West Ham have proven to be a difficult side for us. It is a London derby, they are stubborn, create chances and have always played well against us so we don’t underestimate them but our confidence is in a good place and when you are winning games away, it only adds to the confidence of the group.’
Tickets for Sunday’s match versus West Ham are priced at £9 for adults and £1 for juniors (under-20) and seniors (over-65).