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FA Cup final win encapsulates essence of Emma Hayes’s Chelsea | Women’s FA Cup

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Erin Cuthbert scores Chelsea’s second goal from long range.

Chelsea are not a sentimental team by nature. Nor are they a team who appear overly preoccupied by questions of style and process. They can play football from the stars and football from the gutter – often in the same game, occasionally even in the same move. They are not, by any stretch of the imagination, an ugly or unappealing side to watch. But nor, by the same token, do they crave approval in the slightest.

What does this mean in practice? If you are Jess Carter, it means that, when Lauren Hemp starts running at you with 80 minutes played in the FA Cup final, at the head of a five-on-three Manchester City counterattack, you immediately and instinctively chop her down. If you are Sam Kerr, it means that even when you have barely had a touch of the ball all game, you still somehow leave the pitch with two goals and a medal round your neck.

If you are Erin Cuthbert, it means that even in the thick of a bruising and broken midfield battle you can locate the one moment of pure balletic grace that will turn the game on its head. And if you are Emma Hayes, it means you have no hesitation in substituting off one of your substitutes to close down the game, even when that player is Ji So-yun, an all-time great playing her last ever game for your club.

Maybe for the neutral or the purist there was a certain unsatisfying imperfection to the way Chelsea won this: a deflected goal past a distraught goalkeeper in a game that could really have gone either way. In fact, it was hard to imagine a better expression of what Chelsea do, what they stand for, how they win. The freakish lob, the 25-yard screamer, the lucky ricochet: Hayes celebrates them all just the same like the owner of a provincial construction firm who has just received a frankly astonishing county court judgment in her favour.

Manchester City had 61% of the possession here. They had 23 shots to Chelsea’s nine, created most of the running, most of the pressure, most of the chances, most of the excitement. They came into this game on a high of 14 straight wins, with key players returning from injury, with fine rhythm and momentum. None of it was of the slightest relevance. One can call it rotten luck or one can call it a lack of composure. Ultimately, when they wake up on Monday morning nursing bruises and a broken heart, it does not remotely matter.

Erin Cuthbert scores Chelsea’s second goal from long range.
Erin Cuthbert scores Chelsea’s second goal from long range. Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters

Certainly City seemed keen to match Chelsea physically, aggressively asserting their territory, tightly marking the main attacking threats. It was a niggly, grapply opening, analogous to the bit at the start of a Scrabble game where both players seem intent on assembling a thicket of annoying and usually fictional two-letter words. Kerr’s opening goal was probably what the game needed. City came forward, shed a few inhibitions and equalised through Hemp, who cut inside and smashed the ball in with her weaker right foot.

Cuthbert’s long-range strike on the hour seemed to have won the game but a minute from time Hayley Raso produced a sensational run and finish to make it 2-2. Many weaker teams than Chelsea might have subsided at that point. And yet through all the wildly juddering emotions of the day, it always felt as if Hayes was in control, still orchestrating, still seeing the game unfold a few moments before anyone else. She cycled calmly through her substitutions. Five at the back became four. Chelsea rolled up their sleeves, cleared their lines, settled in for the long haul and trusted that their opponents would crack first.

They were right, of course. A large part of Chelsea’s devastating potency in these games is that sense of certainty: the ability not just to envisage their own triumph but somehow to make their opponents envisage it too. There was an inevitability to Kerr as she bore down on City’s goal in extra time, an inevitability to the deflection that took the ball past Ellie Roebuck, an inevitability to the way they saw the game out under the highest pressure, with the double on the line and a crowd of 49,000 baying for more drama.

And for all the excellence on the pitch Hayes is really the common denominator in all this, the architect, the dreamer. Superstars come and go. Teams are dismantled and remade. But before Hayes arrived the biggest thing Chelsea had ever won was the Surrey County Cup. She built this thing from scratch, made it flesh over almost a decade, kept renewing and refreshing the dynasty. This is how one wins the two biggest prizes in domestic football without ever really seeming to get out of third gear.

Women’s football graphic Moving the Goalposts
Women’s football graphic Moving the Goalposts Illustration: Guardian Design

Hayes’s Chelsea have played better matches, more emphatic matches, more important matches. But there has perhaps never been a match that more perfectly encapsulated their essence. You think you have them on the ropes, you think they are riding their luck but really you are just playing their game and deep down you know it.

Afterwards Chelsea’s exhausted players and their exhausted coach took their curtain call and strode out towards the east end of Wembley where the blue flags were still flying. They looked not euphoric but defiant, not victorious but vindicated. “This is who we are,” they seemed to be saying. “Did you ever doubt us?”

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