LONDON — In front of a record crowd of 77,390 at Wembley Stadium, Sam Kerr’s second-half strike was enough for Chelsea to claim their fifth FA Cup title with a narrow 1-0 win over debutantes Manchester United on Sunday.
1. Chelsea’s depth proves the difference vs. United
In their first meeting this season — its own flat affair — the difference for Chelsea came from their resilience and ability to dig in, the team plugging away in Leigh before finding a stream of goals after the hour mark. At Wembley, once the initial pressure from United wore off, it became a similar stalemate story on the pitch, harking back to that encounter in November.
Unlike that match, Chelsea’s depth has improved a little with more players available to Emma Hayes as evidenced by the introduction of Pernille Harder before the hour mark. It was just the Denmark international’s third appearance since returning from a long-term hamstring injury last weekend. Not only did Harder’s introduction give Chelsea more oomph going forward — the Dane the one to tee Kerr up for the contest’s lone goal — but it came at a time when the Blues were enjoying more attacking bite.
Throughout the years, Chelsea have become masters of finding a way through to a result, and you could see it again at Wembley when they came out for the second half. They had weathered an early storm from United but they’re aware of their own credentials and the simple inevitability of themselves and their winning ways. Chelsea know — just like the rest of us do — if you feed Kerr, if you give her that one good chance, she will produce. And ultimately that was the difference in the final, Chelsea taking their chances where United failed to capitalise on theirs.
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2. Man United’s learning curve
When asked about United’s chances at Wembley earlier in the week, former assistant to ex-United manager Casey Stoney, Willie Kirk, said, “I’ve always said that Man United needs to recruit winners before they’ll win.” The Leicester City manager went on to explain that, unlike Chelsea, the United squad isn’t replete with players with gold medals and final wins, citing a possible lack of, “know how” in the team.
In their first final outing as a team, the focus was on coach Marc Skinner, who had been to Wembley with Birmingham City in 2017, when his team were humbled by Manchester City. In the lead-up to the final this year, Skinner had spoken about what he’d learned in terms of taking the emotion out of the build-up to not overwhelm his players, yet as many will tell you, there is no way of preparing for a major final that replicates the conditions.
Sometimes for teams, it simply is about losing a final, about leaning from the occasion and taking it into the next season, and that very experience is what Chelsea have in spades. Far from being their first trip to Wembley or appearance in a final, it’s the norm for the Blues, both as a squad as well as individuals who know international success.
Whether winning ugly or winning pretty, Hayes has built a team of serial winners. As everyone at Chelsea and United alike know, it doesn’t come overnight and it takes losses, like Sunday’s, for the Red Devils to grow if they want to emulate what Hayes and Chelsea have accomplished.
3. Parris steps up for the occasion
A player who cut her teeth in the Everton setup, Nikita Parris’ time in football has been far from smooth sailing. From Everton to the blue side of Manchester, on to Lyon and back to England, for a fruitless spell with Arsenal before joining up with the red side of Manchester, the consistency of performance hasn’t always been there for the diminutive winger.
Her dips in domestic form impacting her selection for England along the way. Since England won the Euros last summer, the 29-year-old has only featured for Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses twice. Even for United, Parris hasn’t always produced her best, but Skinner has kept the faith and the attacker has been finding her better form at the key time of the season.
At Wembley, Parris was comfortably United’s best outlet, the attacker taking it upon herself to cover every blade of grass and chase down every ball, lifting the attack from the back as well as hounding the Chelsea backline. So important was Parris that she was the last player anyone would have expected to see taken off first by her coach as he looked to change things early while the two teams were still deadlocked.
With England enduring a mini injury crisis and lacking so many of the offensive options that stood them in good stead at the Euros, Parris peaking at the right time — and putting on a show in front of the England boss at Wembley — may just have earned her a spot on the plane to this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Eve Perisset, Chelsea. Consistent in Chelsea’s defence, helping cut out the danger and progress the ball forward.
BEST: Nikita Parris, Manchester United. Parris was at the heart of most of United’s positive play, and they didn’t look as strong in attack once she was off the pitch.
BEST: Pernille Harder, Chelsea. Made an instant impact off the bench to tie the play together and let Kerr play her best football.
WORST: Niamh Charles, Chelsea. Came within a whisker of giving up a first-half penalty and looked less than comfortable against United’s better attackers.
WORST: Alessia Russo, Manchester United. Tried to be an outlet for her team but failed to take the chances that dropped to her.
WORST: Jessie Fleming, Chelsea. Ineffectual during her time on the pitch.
Highlights and notable moments
A quintessentially precise Kerr goal, a quintessentially acrobatic Kerr celebration.
IT HAD TO BE HER! THE BACKFLIP 😱@samkerr1 loves a BIG goal at @wembleystadium! 💥#WomensFACup pic.twitter.com/y6Fr4cs3NC
— Vitality Women’s FA Cup (@VitalityWFACup) May 14, 2023
After the match: What the players/managers said
Kerr: “I think it’s the sign of a great team: we didn’t have our best game but we pushed through. Everyone stuck at it and we got the win.”
Skinner: “I’m really proud of what the girls have done today. As you’ve seen there, we’re hungry. [Chelsea] might be winning it now, but that’s not where they’re going to be in the future, that’s what we want to take. We’re a team that will come again, we’re a team that’s hungry, young, energetic, and now we just have to find the right little pieces to make sure that we are challenging all the time.”
Chelsea: Chelsea will be in action again on Wednesday, when they cross the English capital for a Women’s Super League fixture against West Ham United.
Manchester United: United return to the North West on Sunday for a local derby against Manchester City in the WSL.