Women’s FA Cup final preview: How Manchester United reached a ‘turning point’ to challenge Chelsea

Chelsea are coming for Manchester United. They have been for most of the season, after all. In the Women’s Super League it has been United who have set the pace at the top, with defending champions Chelsea in pursuit, inching closer as the games in hand have ticked down. Chelsea have won both encounters between the sides this campaign, and if they win their next three league fixtures the title will be theirs once again. United, despite enjoying a year of considerable progress, would be powerless to stop it.

But at Wembley on Sunday, as Manchester United face Chelsea in the Women’s FA Cup final, Marc Skinner’s side will be in control of their own fate. They will meet on equal footing, with one half of a sold out Wembley bathed in red, the other soaked in blue, on what is another historic occasion in the women’s game this season. An attendance of almost 90,000 will smash the record for a women’s club match in England and sets the stage for United’s first Women’s FA Cup final, five years on from the team’s rebirth in 2018.

This season has seen United take an important step forward – yet the presence of Chelsea in the final is a daunting reminder of how far there is still to go. While United aim to win a first major trophy, Chelsea are going for their third FA Cup in a row under Emma Hayes, as well as a fourth consecutive WSL crown. The title race is unfamiliar ground for United but Chelsea have been here before; last season brought the double, the year before a treble. Now a double beckons once again.

Though for United, it beckons too. After knocking on the door of England’s top three in recent years, United have smashed through this season. Champions League qualification was the target at the start of the year but Skinner’s team have surpassed that, turning games that would have finished as draws last term into wins to lead Chelsea by a point and reach the FA Cup final. There is a spirit and momentum behind the Manchester side, but the problem for the WSL leaders is they have only lost two games this season, and both have been to Chelsea.

“Beating them in both games, it’s a good psychological advantage,” says Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert, but United believe they are getting closer. “Every time we play Chelsea, we improve,” says United’s captain Katie Zelem. “We know what they are about.”

Trying to overcome it is another question, though. In March’s league meeting at Kingsmeadow, Chelsea stifled United without the ball and won the game thanks to a moment of brilliance from Sam Kerr. The Londoners’ approach was one usually reserved for the likes of Barcelona or Lyon in the Champions League, which shows the level of respect this United side are demanding.

“What they have done is brilliant,” Cuthbert admitted. “We know what their threats are but it’s about confidence and belief,” Zelem continued. The England international is one of the remaining members of the side that earned promotion from the Championship in 2019, along with Ella Toone, Leah Galton and Millie Turner, and recognises the difference in mentality this season. “We don’t change now for the other teams, whereas in the first few seasons it was more about staying in the game and taking a point or nicking a win.” Zelem added. “Now, you see in a lot of the games we dominate possession, we dominate the ball.”

United have also developed a taste for late goals. “‘Fergie time’ is what we used to call that,” Zelem laughs. November’s 3-2 win against Arsenal at the Emirates was the “turning point”, after an 87th-minute equaliser from Turner and a 91st-minute winner from Alessia Russo. It showed United that they could take the next step. “When we play against Arsenal it feels like we have a psychological edge over them now,” Zelem states. “It’s about taking that mentality into Chelsea.”

Russo’s last-gasp winner at the Emirates was a ‘turning point’

(PA Wire)

For Chelsea, the challenge will be in how they rise to United’s motivation. “They are a team who are hungry – when you haven’t won anything you’ve got a certain hunger and desire to get there,” Cuthbert says. “We need to match that as a bare minimum if we want to compete and win this battle.” Chelsea will also have the experience of the occasion, while the danger for United is they fail to turn up in the way teams often do after ending a long wait for a major final. “It’s the mentality of who turns up on the day,” says Cuthbert. “Who shows up and is present, and who doesn’t let the game get to them.”

You can usually guarantee that Chelsea take to Wembley when they arrive, in the same way a certain Australian striker does. Kerr has scored doubles in each of Chelsea’s previous two FA Cup final wins – the first against Arsenal in 2021 was sensational, the second against Manchester City last season utterly dramatic.

Kerr celebrates last season’s FA Cup final winner against Manchester City

(The FA via Getty Images)

This year, Chelsea have hit their stride following defeat to Barcelona in the Nou Camp in the Champions League semi-finals, rattling off a 7-0 win over Everton and a 6-0 win against Leicester in their last two games. Pernille Harder has returned from injury to hit braces in both, in what is a further boost ahead of the rest of the run-in.

Having a target to aim for has helped Chelsea. “I like this position,” Hayes said after Wednesday’s Leicester win returned them to a point behind United. “I like putting pressure on others, it’s fun for me.”

It hasn’t been much fun for Chelsea’s rivals in previous years, and as United come face to face with the trophy-winning machine who are breathing down their necks at Wembley, it will be their turn to try and avoid a familiar fate.

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