Chelsea’s FA Cup conquest gives new bite to WSL title race with rivals Arsenal

Whilst neither side would like to admit it, winning the coveted silverware will have given Chelsea a powerful psychological advantage in the battle for league glory. What Arsenal do next is crucial, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

In the lead up to the FA Cup Final, everyone was talking about what a close game it would be. The past couple of finals have tended to look like rather one-sided affairs on paper. Even though Everton took Manchester City to extra-time last year, it was no surprise that City eventually came out on top, whilst their win against West Ham a year before was also a bit of a mismatch. In fact, it was not since Chelsea’s win against Arsenal in 2018 that two of the best teams in England had come face to face in women’s football’s showpiece event.

Sunday’s match held an extra level of intensity because of the calendar. The move to December as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the two title-challengers would be forced into a ‘winner-takes-all’ game less than halfway through the season. Normally seasons come to a thrilling crescendo; this time, one side would leave Wembley with an extra spring in their step.

Whilst the final was always going to have to have a winner, the manner of Arsenal’s defeat did nothing to suggest they are anywhere near the best team in the country. Chelsea stopped Arsenal from even having a shot on target, something that has not been done for at least a decade’s worth of FA Cup finals. Even worse, the defeat hinged upon Arsenal’s impotence rather than Chelsea’s brilliance.

Yes, Chelsea’s high press and defensive solidity made them tricky to play against, but it was Arsenal who left huge gaps between their defence and attack. It was Arsenal who allowed Jen Beattie and Lotte Wubben-Moy to be isolated and left at the mercy of Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby. It was Arsenal who dawdled on the ball until a Chelsea player was able to get back and dispossess them.  

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The race for the WSL title is agonisingly close. Analytics website FiveThirtyEight’s predictive model for the Women’s Super League currently has Chelsea and Arsenal finishing on the same number of points with the same goal difference. It has been clear since September that this will be a two-horse race, and in a league where the best teams drop very few points over the course of a season, there is little margin for error.

For Arsenal, that meant they had a strong advantage when they beat Chelsea on the opening day of the season – not just for the satisfaction of outplaying their London rivals, but also for receiving an effective three-point head start. Now the gap is only one point and Arsenal will be forced to stay focused, knowing any slip up could be pounced on, including a visit to Kingsmeadow in February.

Chelsea meanwhile achieved the ending to last season that this side deserved. The Champions League defeat to Barcelona was humiliating and rather tainted what had been a dominant domestic campaign. It’s clear this season that there has been a lingering uncertainty in some of Chelsea’s play: a lack of confidence that they really are the best, which was only compounded by the opening day loss to Arsenal. The win on Sunday served as a reminder that they are still capable of taking apart very good teams.

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Both sides, however, will be careful not to get carried away by the FA Cup result. You only have to look at the reaction after Arsenal won in the league to see the folly in being taken in by a one-off game. But with Arsenal having not won the league since 2018/19, there is a risk that doubts creep in. When every point is crucial, keeping your head is essential. Chelsea know that better than anyone, having been chased all the way to titles in the past two seasons. Right now, though, they are enjoying being the ones in pursuit.

You can follow Jessy on Twitter @Jessyjph

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