It’s almost fitting that the Women’s FA Cup final will see Manchester City and Chelsea do battle again. The two sides already faced off in the Continental Cup final in March, and they’ve each been on quite the run of form — City have won their last 13 games and Chelsea their last 11 coming into Sunday’s showdown.
While City won the Conti Cup handily, 3-1, but they couldn’t catch Chelsea in the league as the Blues held off Arsenal on the final matchday to take the Women’s Super League title. But who will have the upper hand in the FA Cup?
ESPN’s Tom Hamilton, Kathleen McNamee, Connor O’Halloran and Sophie Lawson take a look ahead to the match and offer their predictions for what might be in store.
Coming into the game, which head-to-head battle is most interesting?
Hamilton: It’ll be fascinating to see how Chelsea deal with the threat of Lauren Hemp. She has five goals in five games across all competitions for City in a forward lineup including Ellen White and Khadija Shaw, who are both also on fire. Chelsea’s 3-5-2 formation means it’ll be a combination of Jess Carter and Niamh Charles, who’ll be marshalling Hemp on that side of the pitch, while Erin Cuthbert and Millie Bright will also be on hand to nullify that threat.
McNamee: I’m excited to see the impact that both midfields have. We know Man City and Chelsea are stacked up front with impressive scorers, but I think the midfield area is somewhere that both teams have looked at to help them get through difficult periods. I’ll be curious to see how the likes of Caroline Weir and Georgia Stanway face up to Chelsea’s Ji Soyun and Cuthbert.
O’Halloran: There are any number of possible answers to this, but for me it’s Lucy Bronze vs. Jonna Andersson/Guro Reiten. The England international was key part of the second-half turnaround in March’s Conti Cup win over Chelsea. Initially nullified in the first period, Bronze was able to get forward and find space in the second and allow City’s dynamic front three to really cause damage. It will be interesting to see how Chelsea can keep her quiet, and Bronze will be plenty busy in defence, too.
Lawson: It’s a bit of a cop-out, but for me it’s about the general wrestling for possession and how the press/counter-press plays out throughout the match — so it ends up being team vs. team rather than player vs. player. That being said, with how far Carter has come since the start of the season, I think it’s going to be fun to see who wins the battle between her and Hemp.
Why won’t this be a repeat of Man City’s Conti Cup win?
Hamilton: City had come out of their tricky spell while Chelsea were still in the midst of an injury crisis when the two met. Emma Hayes’ Chelsea were without Cuthbert (who is indispensable in their system), the brilliant Fran Kirby, nor Jessie Fleming in March. While Kirby is a doubt for the weekend, the others are back and firing.
There’s also an additional emotional side to this match for Chelsea — the likes of Soyun and Drew Spence will be leaving at the end of the season and they’ll want to give them a great send off. And also from a City perspective, they’re probably playing better now than they were then.
McNamee: Both sides were at very different stages of their season when City beat Chelsea. The London side will have been buoyed by their WSL win on the final day and City will be looking to prove that they are better than their third-place finish. City will be facing a tougher Chelsea side than they did in the Conti Cup and have faced a league defeat to them since then.
O’Halloran: Both sides are in white-hot form — Chelsea have been flawless over the last 11 games in all competitions since that Conti Cup final defeat, while City’s winning streak stems even further back than that. In fact, the last defeat both of these sides suffered was to each other. It’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner, let alone by a two-goal margin.
Lawson: Chelsea, and particularly Hayes, have a bit of a, “fool me once …” mentality — and for the way Man City fought back in what is, basically, Chelsea’s back garden, I just can’t see the Blues not looking for some degree of revenge. At the very least, I can easily imagine Hayes sticking Sophie Ingle on Weir to nullify the Scot’s ability to dictate City’s attack.
Which side needs the win the most?
Hamilton: For City, a victory here will complete a domestic cup Double and add a lighter shade of blue to the English season. It’ll be a statement victory and a sign of intent ahead of next season if City are to claim the FA Cup final on Sunday, for what would be their third triumph in four years.
For Chelsea, it would cement their dominance, completing a back-to-back league and FA Cup Double. They’d head into next season as the team to beat, with eyes on transferring that domestic sweep into form on the European stage. Just three other teams have done the WSL/FA Cup Double, showing just how hard it is. You have to say that City need to win this Cup more than Chelsea to bloody their nose ahead of next term.
McNamee: A win for Chelsea would assert their dominance in the English game, while a win for City would show that they have recovered from their early season difficulties. A City win would also likely show more of a progression for that team after two defeats to Chelsea in the league and demonstrate that the Conti Cup win wasn’t just a one-off big-event win for the side.
O’Halloran: When the talk of legacy comes up, it’s hard to look past Chelsea. After a disappointing group stage exit of this year’s Champions League, a domestic Double would keep the good times rolling in West London. Hayes’ Chelsea are here to build a dynasty, so two cup final defeats to City in one season would really sting.
Lawson: It’s close but it’s got to be City who need this more. Chelsea have just claimed their third successive league title and have been the better team in the Champions League over the last couple of seasons; across the board, since their lone league title (in 2016) City have lost ground.
With three FA Cup final wins each and Man City never having lost in the final, if City can claim their fourth before Chelsea do, it will be a huge mental boost for them going into next season.
Both sides have experienced ups-and-downs – will that be a factor?
Hamilton: Both teams have suffered spells of upheaval during this term. Emma Hayes illustrated this before their final WSL match of the season by listing those who had been absent through injury or illness. While a turbulent spell in January saw their Champions League campaign end abruptly in the group stage on head-to-head goal difference, they managed to keep their hand in with the league and that endurance will be key on Sunday.
For City, their dodgy spell came before Christmas as they dropped 11 points in six matches with the likes of Steph Houghton, Ellie Roebuck, Bronze and Chloe Kelly all absent. They, too, weathered that spell to finish the season with 13 straight wins and after a season where squad depth was tested, expect both teams to go all-out on Sunday.
McNamee: I don’t think the turbulence for either side will factor massively as City have recovered from their injury patch incredibly well while Chelsea have shown they have the mental strength to grind out wins despite happenings in the boardroom. Arguably, Chelsea have had a more difficult time as of late but their depth on the bench should help them.
O’Halloran: I’m not sure it will. Hayes has spoken many times about growing into the season and peaking at the business end, while City’s early season woes came amid a flurry of injuries. Both sides are playing at a high level and seem to have put any past issues behind them.
Lawson: With the tailspin Manchester City were in at the start of the start of the season, which included conceding seven unanswered goals at home to Chelsea over two fixtures in the space of a fortnight, the team will be determined to show they’re still one of the best sides in England and while Chelsea will want revenge for the Conti Cup final, City will feel they have a score to settle, too.
Let’s talk MVPs: Which player is key for each team?
Hamilton: After her remarkable goal-scoring double at the weekend, all Chelsea eyes will be on superstar Sam Kerr. Her two strikes against Manchester United were just remarkable goals and reinforced why she is one of the world’s best players. But Ji changed that match for Chelsea on Sunday — her introduction at half-time allowed the Blues to push up higher, and her to dictate the tempo. She may not start — but she’s indispensable as part of the squad.
For City, Weir has enjoyed another superb season, and scored twice in their Conti Cup win in March. She’s essential to everything they do and will need to be on fire if they’re to see off Chelsea.
McNamee: Hemp has been absolutely crucial to Man City’s success this season, particularly when they were going through a rough patch. For Chelsea, Ji changed the game when she came onto the pitch on the WSL’s final day and created space for them to flourish against Man United. Chelsea will also be hoping Kerr can repeat some of her big game magic.
O’Halloran: Weir arrives in big matches time and again for City, and she will need to do the same on Sunday. Her brace in the Conti Cup helped Gareth Taylor’s side to victory, and she should have netted a gilt-edge chance against Chelsea a couple of weeks prior to equalise there. If she brings her shooting boots, Chelsea will need to watch for her as she pops up in the box.
Lawson: The cliché is that good defences win you titles but, for me at least, cup finals are all about the attackers, especially when you have two of the best in the country in the match. So it’s got to be Kerr, she’s a big player for a big occasion and not only is she in good goal-scoring form right now but she naturally does a lot of off the ball defensive work that could well be vital.
So, final predictions: Who wins and who scores?
Hamilton: I’m going for a Chelsea win. I can see it being far closer than the previous FA Cup final where Chelsea swiped Arsenal aside 4-0, and I can see Kerr grabbing a couple and another from a set piece. While Weir and Shaw will get on the scoresheet for City it won’t be enough to stop a 3-2 victory for Hayes’ side.
McNamee: I think it will be close between the sides, but I see Chelsea having the edge. Their wins as of late haven’t necessarily been pretty, but Hayes and her squad know how to step it up a gear when the going gets tough. I don’t think it will be a goal fest, probably around the 2-1 mark, with Kerr likely on the scoresheet and Hemp on the Man City side.
O’Halloran: Chelsea will be slight favourites, but City have shown before they are up to the task. I’ll sit on the fence and say it will be close. Chelsea win 2-1, and Kerr provides the star power to bag the winner.
Lawson: There’s usually a lot of goals on show when the two sides meet, so maybe the better question is: who won’t score? Hemp, Ellen White, Kerr, Bright getting a cheeky one and probably someone with a worldie … endless goals, full chaos. It could be 3-0 or it could be a shoot-out and I cannot predict how it will go, but if I have to, let’s say, City to win … narrowly.