Imagine playing against a team of Erin Cuthberts. You would not be allowed a moment to realise what a frightening situation you had found yourself in, let alone the time to try and dance around the snapping challenges and evade the constant harrying. Win the ball and Cuthbert will chase you down; lose it and if you don’t close the space, she has the quality to make you pay for it, as she did against Manchester City by thundering an unstoppable shot off the underside of the crossbar.
Chelsea have bigger stars, but arguably no player was more important to their 3-2 win at Wembley to retain the Women’s FA Cup. While it may have been Sam Kerr who scored the winner in extra time, as the Australian added two more goals to her sublime cup final record for Chelsea, it was Cuthbert who was everywhere else in behind. Chelsea were often outnumbered by City but the Scotland international ensured they were never overran.
“I wish we had 20 of her,” Emma Hayes said, and you really do get the sense that if the Chelsea manager was to create a line-up from a laboratory it would be the midfielder’s DNA that would stem throughout the side. “We had to grind. We had to work. We had to suffer,” Hayes admitted, but the smile gave away that she had also completely loved it. Cuthbert did too, even as she collapsed in exhaustion at full-time. There was nothing more to give.
She was quite rightly awarded player of the match, her performance a symbol of Chelsea’s fight and resolve to prevail in a final that City shaded for significant parts. A recovering tackle on Bunny Shaw as the City striker strode towards the penalty area summed up Cuthbert’s endeavour and her goal arrived moments later. In the flick of a switch, she was leading the attack down the other end and it was fitting of the game that once again everything had changed so suddenly.
It was largely down to the fact Gareth Taylor’s side never led that set up such a thrilling contest. City were always chasing the game and when their equalising goals came through Lauren Hemp and then substitute Hayley Raso, it somewhat took away their momentum and let Chelsea back into it.
City played a lot of the better football, and certainly led in possession, shots and chances. Hayes said before the final that playing City would be like a chess match and the occasion was elevated by the tactical duel that followed. Both teams played bravely and embraced the individual contests. It was there where City edged it, particularly in midfield and on the wings, not that their opponents ever appeared rattled.
Shortly after Raso’s equaliser and in the huddle that preceded extra time, Hayes told her players they would win, and then her job was done. The rest she left up to them. “It was completely calm,” she said. “It was leadership from the players at a level that I’ve worked so hard to build and cultivate. It’s not about me making the decisions but the team as a whole buying into what it takes to win. It’s not always pretty.”
There is not much more you can say about Chelsea’s certainty. They have now won seven of the past nine domestic trophies, with City’s victory against them in March’s Continental Cup final the only thing denying Chelsea consecutive treble-winning campaigns. It’s a historic run. “The best group I have ever coached,” Hayes added after, and yet that post-game press conference featured questions about her own future and what is next for this dominant Chelsea side.
The obvious frontier to be reached is in Europe. Chelsea underperformed in the first season of the Champions League group stages, after reaching the final in the previous campaign, and they will be expected to go deeper into the competition next season. Invariably, once Hayes regroups her squad following the Euros this summer, the question will be on how to translate their domestic success. For all of Chelsea’s good results in Europe, they have yet to develop that same feeling of inevitability in the competition, which has powered their run-in this season.
Perhaps they have already found the answer. Cuthbert’s versatility has often seen her shifted around but since Melanie Leupolz’s pregnancy announcement in March, she has had a consistent run in a slightly deeper and more central position. It brought drive, and a refusal to lose. In turn, Chelsea settled into becoming even more of its defining characteristic. They were more Emma Hayes, and as Cuthbert crashed and whirred around City at Wembley there was another reminder that this tireless winning machine is all of its manager’s own making.