BY Harry Corton
With the Women’s FA Cup back this weekend, the tie of the round is undoubtedly Chelsea versus Arsenal; a juicy London derby not to mention a repeat of last year’s final which saw the Blues run out 3-1 winners.
The Gunners blew their city rivals away in the first league meeting this season with a 5-0 away win back in October. A brace each from Vivianne Miedema and Jordan Nobbs ensured the visitors came away with sky-high spirits and three points in the bag.
But that emphatic result did not have a lasting effect as Arsenal slumped to a 2-1 defeat in the reverse fixture in January. Scottish midfielder Erin Cuthbert notched either side of the break to inflict only the Gunners’ second defeat of the campaign.
With the Blues now sitting six points off league leaders Man City, manager Emma Hayes has conceded that the chances of her side defending their WSL title this season are now skimpier than the contents of an individual Walkers multi-pack bag of crisps.
Their Continental Cup semi-final loss to City dealt a further blow to the team's collective optimism but Hayes insists they will pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Arsenal won their own League Cup semi beating Manchester United 2-1 to progress to the final later this month.
The FA Cup now represents Chelsea's only real chance of a domestic trophy this season. In the last round, they faced a tough trip to fellow WSL outfit Everton and dug deep to emerge as 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Drew Spence and Hannah Blundell.
Vivianne Miedema scored twice on her last visit to Chelsea.
Arsenal meanwhile had the far less taxing challenge of a visit to fourth-tier Crawley Wasps. The kind draw allowed boss Joe Montemurro to ring the changes and he duly brought in 16-year-old Ruby Grant to make just her second start of the season. The striker seized her opportunity with both hands, stunning team-mates by netting a fine hat-trick.
Despite making a hefty impression, it’s unlikely that Montemurro will take a chance on the youngster in this round against a strong Chelsea side. The Australian is not short of attacking options. Dutch international Miedema, who signed from Bayern Munich in 2017, is the WSL top scorer with 16 goals, having hit a purple patch of late netting seven times in as many games.
The Gunners' captain, Nobbs, remains sidelined as she recovers from a ruptured ACL suffered in November. The midfielder’s absence is a massive blow given her ability to conduct the tempo of games.
Kim Little, who’s taken on the captain’s armband in Nobbs’ absence, pulls the strings like a puppeteer in midfield. The 28-year-old has done well to recover from a serious injury of her own, suffering a broken fibula after a vicious tackle from Chelsea forward Spence in the 5-0 trouncing earlier this season.
Defensive errors have cost Chelsea dearly in their last two games, which have both been against City. A dominant first-half performance in the cup was spoiled when Deanna Cooper clumsily fouled Nikita Parris to concede a penalty.
Fran Kirby scores Chelsea's third in last year's final.
Similarly, it was individual cock-ups that cost them again in the 2-2 league draw at the City Academy Stadium last weekend. Millie Bright got caught in possession just inside her own half directly allowing City to break the deadlock. But despite being 2-0 down at half time, the south-Londoners showed spades of grit to fight back and draw 2-2.
Fran Kirby, Chelsea’s top scorer last season has been slowly integrated back into the team following a long absence due to injury. She returned in January and wasted no more time, bagging herself a double in the 4-0 win over her former club Reading.
It will be a closely fought encounter with both sides remaining conservative, particularly reluctant to concede first. As the Blues’ boss Hayes says, “the first goal is always important in these games.”
She’s right to be cautious - Arsenal haven’t lost a game all season in which they’ve bagged first. There’s nothing to suggest that will change on Sunday. If Arsenal can weather the storm early on and keep Chelsea out, the chances will come and the WSL’s freest scoring team rarely turn them down.
This match is unfortunately not being shown live on UK TV but tickets are available here.