Chelsea manager Emma Hayes celebrated her 43rd birthday with a victory in the cup competition she’d much rather not be in!
Clutching a signed card from her players and staff as she left the Hayes Lane pitch after a 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace Women, the Blues boss was delighted with the outcome… but still insisted that the Conti Cup – the women’s equivalent of the League Cup – is a commitment too far for ambitious teams in the WSL.
“At least play these games in midweek rather than at the weekend,” she pleaded in a pitchside post-match chat following the win at the ground on which Bromley FC had knocked Aldershot Town out of the FA Cup in the fourth preliminary round the day before.
The FA Continental League cup is the only domestic trophy that Chelsea Women haven’t won, despite the cabinet containing two FA Women’s Super League trophies, the Spring Series cup and two FA Cups, achieved in the seven years since Hayes took charge.
Sunday afternoon’s match against Dean Davenport’s Championship side proved a harder challenge than many of Chelsea’s travelling army had predicted.
Kicking off at 2pm in rapidly chilling conditions, the game was goalless at half-time, despite one or two close calls, notably an out-of-the-blue volley by left back Jess Carter moments before ref Abigail Byrne lifted the whistle to her lips to signal the end of the first 45 minutes.
Her long-range volley, from fully 30 yards, soared through the air and struck the Palace bar before bouncing harmlessly into the new Glyn Beverly stand at the National League ground.
With the artificial turf making passing slow (and possibly being a contributory factor in Anita Asante’s unfortunate early injury which led to Jonna Andersson playing almost all the match), Chelsea made heavy work of chance creation after the manager had made seven changes from the team that beat Arsenal in the league the previous weekend.
Both Palace and Chelsea were playing their second Continental Cup matches of the season; the Blues having beaten West Ham 2-0 and the Eagles having defeated fellow Championship side Lewes 3-2 away.
With Carly Telford in goal, Chelsea lined up with a back four of Maren Mjelde, Millie Bright, Deanna Cooper and Jess Carter, behind a deep midfield ‘Jorginho/Kante-style’ double act of Asante and Maria Thorisdottir, who in turn were sitting behind Ramona Bachmann, Drew Spence and Erin Cuthbert with Beth England leading the thrust in a 4-2-3-1 that now largely mirrors Frank Lampard’s preferred men’s formation.
After the frustrating first half, Palace’s part-timers inevitably began tiring, and the Blues increased the pace, with more penetrating forays down the wing, especially via Mjelde.
The right back, relishing the chances to get forward, evaded defenders to fire a cross into the box, where Beth England was waiting to convert in the 51st minute.
The floodgates then threatened to open as a Cuthbert free kick from the opposite side fell to Earth perfectly for England to head home a second, four minutes later.
But although Drew Spence made it 3-0 on 77 minutes, thanks to an unselfish England assist when she might easily have wellyed to achieve her hat-trick, that was it for the afternoon.
Blues manager Emma Hayes still passionately believes that the Conti Cup competition is not what the WSL clubs need, and that only when the league is increased in size to create more regular weekend top-flight fixtures will she be truly happy.
“Get rid of it! Make more league fixtures!” she said the previous week. “Get rid of the Continental Cup!”
However, as the Conti Cup DOES currently exist, she also believes – and her squad agree – that if you’re in it, you have to go for it. Wholeheartedly.
“Different weeks we require different players to have different roles,” she said, explaining the line-up against Palace Women, and the fact that so many changes had been made to the team that faced the Gunners.
“This week was an opportunity for players who have been so superb in the background, and who are so disappointed, of course, not to get in the team on a regular basis,” she added. “They wait patiently and push, and represent the football club in a way we always ask. So I’m happy for players today to get a game, because it’s always disappointing to leave players out of the side.”
She said it wasn’t easy to manage players’ disappointment, but she did her best by giving players individual feedback after training to help the players in their progression through the entire season.
Chelsea Women next play West Ham away at Rush Green on October 27 before another Conti Cup away tie at Lewes. The next home game at Kingsmeadow is the eagerly awaited first top-flight clash with Man U on November 17, a week after the likes of Bright, Fran Kirby (currently laid up with flu), England and Telford return from north London after the England v Germany sell-out at Wembley.