A wet and windy Kingsmeadow proved the backdrop to the final act of the women’s season as, fittingly, Chelsea finished the campaign on a high.
Although Everton made them work hard at times, goals from Guro Reiten, Sam Kerr and Drew Spence ensured Emma Hayes’s side booked their place in the last eight of the FA Cup. It may seem strange to break for the summer immediately after a rescheduled fifth-round tie but Covid-prompted postponements have dictated that the competition’s latest edition straddles two seasons, with the quarter-finals not taking place until late September.
Chelsea had hoped to welcome fans back to Kingsmeadow on Thursday night but the forced rearrangement of a tie delayed by the home side’s involvement in last Sunday’s Champions League final against Barcelona in Gothenburg meant supporters’ re-admittance was logistically impossible.
It made for a rather flat start during which Hayes’s team played with the air of a side still dazed and disorientated by their 4-0 dismembering at Barça’s hands. Chelsea’s Women’s Super League-winning manager is expected to sign a new contract at the London club this summer and, given her side’s domestic omnipotence, few would bet against Hayes presiding over an FA Cup triumph in December’s Wembley final.
“What a great group,” she enthused. “Sunday hurt, we didn’t hide that but there’s really no shame to having a silver medal from a Champions League final. Not many players have one. It’s a beautiful medal.”
Despite that tentative, slightly shaky opening Chelsea, reconfigured by Hayes in a 3-4-3 formation, began pulling themselves together. Suddenly Everton were no longer winning so many second balls, no longer pressing their opponents into submission. Finally, when Megan Finnigan proved powerless to prevent Kerr squaring to Reiten, the Norway midfielder’s ensuing low, left-footed shot evaded Sandy MacIver’s reach.
As a gusty, capricious wind gathered force, Chelsea’s midfield gained some much-needed composure in the face of Jill Scott’s relentless harrying. The veteran England midfielder is on loan at Everton from Manchester City and for a while her experience afforded Willie Kirk’s fifth-placed WSL finishers a streetwise nous.
Yet despite Scott’s best endeavours and a determined defensive performance from Ingrid Moe Wold in her final game before retirement, Hayes’s goalkeeper, Ann-Katrin Berger, was only occasionally stretched, most notably when keeping out Claire Emslie’s powerful volley.
The impressive MacIver was somewhat busier. If she was relieved when Beth England hit the woodwork from 30 yards she looked positively delighted as, shortly before half time, England glanced a header home only to see the effort disallowed for offside.
Everton’s Gabby George won some important defensive challenges – one on Kerr will linger in the memory – as she and Finnigan attempted to stem the blue tide. When that pair were bypassed, MacIver came to the rescue, spreading herself impeccably to prevent Kerr scoring, while the crossbar came between Millie Bright and a spectacularly dipping long-range goal.
MacIver has already won one England cap and demonstrated precisely why when she reacted smartly to save Kerr’s goal-bound effort with her foot. That reprieve seemed to galvanise Everton and they would surely have equalised through a Jessica Carter own goal if it were not for Berger’s superior reflexes.
The visitors were aggrieved after England appeared to catch George late in the area but the referee, Kirsty Dowle, rejected their penalty appeals.
Indignation turned to resignation when Rikke Sevecke’s slack defensive header dropped to Kerr, and the Australian beat MacIver with a fabulous half-volley.
Chelsea’s place in next Friday’s quarter-final draw was secure and all that remained was for Spence to step off the bench, meet Kerr’s audacious chip and direct a header into the back of the net. No matter that it took a slight deflection off Sorensen, Spence was claiming it.
“We need to polish up on our playing identity and turn a positive and competitive culture into a winning culture,” said Kirk, who is aiming for a top-three finish next season. “It’s a case of small tweaks.”
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