By their own exceptionally high standards, vast portions of Manchester City’s 2021/22 season have been marred by mediocrity.
City had finished in the Women’s Super League top two every year since their first in 2014, but now find themselves temporarily ousted.
For a campaign that began with such optimism – having finished second in the WSL and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals the previous year – City’s display fell short of expectations.
In mid-November, after losing 4-0 to Chelsea – their third home loss of the season – the outlook was alarming.
The manner of that defeat was somewhat humiliating and put incalculable pressure on manager Gareth Taylor.
City were eighth in the WSL table, seven points behind third place in the Champions League, and had picked up just seven points from seven games. The cost of a series of disappointing results.
Hopes of a revival of their languid season seemed incongruous at the time – but you can never write off a team with as much technical savvy and talent as Manchester City.
Fast forward six months and the turnaround has been pretty remarkable, if not downright surprising.
The state of the WSL table, while implying, doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. City’s predicament at the start of the season was largely circumstantial.
A staggeringly long injury list – including captain Steph Houghton, Best FIFA Women’s Player recipient Lucy Bronze, both first-choice goalkeepers plus Chloe Kelly, Esme Morgan, Keira Walsh and Demi Stokes, among others – meant that Taylor’s team suffered from inconsistencies never before experienced by such a successful team. The instability was almost alien.
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Had to press the reset button.
City’s fortunes since the start of the year have contrasted their start to the campaign. They have won 21 of their previous 23 meetings in all competitions, including 13 straight wins.
They won their fourth Continental Cup – at the expense of Chelsea – and secured Champions League football for the new term. A rather improbable feat halfway through the season.
Talk to mancity.com this week the Bronze defender admitted City’s resurgence has made this year feel like “two seasons in one”. She also revealed that early setbacks made later achievements “more special”.
City’s FA Cup dreams were finally dashed by Chelsea last season – so is it time the axis moved north again? Does disappointment breed revenge?
The Sky Blues have had a taste of silverware already this season, with this game itself presenting an interesting conjuncture. The 3-1 victory over Chelsea in March almost lifted a weight on Taylor and City. Their early-season stutter can be attributed, in part, to their catalog of crippling injuries, but City’s league cup coup signaled a return to true form.
Manchester’s blue team have yet to lose – or draw – since winning the Continental Cup. The momentum swing was put to good use.
They also have a lot of recent history in FA Cup competition – domestic cups are becoming almost a strong point, winning three of the last five FA Cup winners’ medals (2017, 2019 and 2020). City actually hold a 100 per cent FA Cup final winning record, having won three out of three.
So can the cup specialists dismantle the new champions of England? The task is still substantial, but not impossible.
Chelsea are of course no stranger to cup success. They are the current FA Cup holders, after all. In fact, both teams have won the trophy a total of three times and Sky Sports’ Karen Carney is expecting another low-margin opportunity.
“It’s going to be tight,” she began. “You look at the two most in-form teams. People will say ‘what about Arsenal? “, But I think Chelsea and City are the ones.
“City have been unbeaten since the start of February – their goalscoring is quite spectacular in that span. Goals against are also significantly improved. If you have 10 injured players, like they have, it affects your training, your culture, the games, the results .
“Most of their core players are back to form and they have more stability. They’ve got their groove back. Part of me favors them.”
Head-to-head this season
- Last meeting in the League Cup final at Plow Lane on March 5 – City came from behind to win 3-1
- It was City’s first win in 10 games. Chelsea had won seven of the previous nine
- Chelsea have won both WSL fixtures this season – 4-0 away and 1-0 at home
In this case, form throughout the season is a problematic gauge. Carney believes that with a squad in top form, the Sky Blues are more than a match for any domestic opposition, while acknowledging the importance of Chelsea’s trophy-laden path to the top.
“Chelsea are WSL champions – coming off the euphoria of winning the league, they will want to double that for departing players.
“But I just think on the big pitch, ball retention, which happened in the Conti Cup final – Man City will be rightly confident. I give them the edge.
“I haven’t seen a team cause Chelsea as much trouble as Man City in this final in a long time. City caused so many problems down the flanks, with possession, moving the ball side to side so well. ‘other.
“If they manage to silence Sam Kerr, they definitely have a chance.
“That being said, even if City dominate and are the better team, that does not guarantee victory. Chelsea are resilient; in stressful times they don’t panic, they solve problems, they get out of sticky situations. That’s why is it going to be so tight.”
Separating the two sides is a tricky prospect; even their head-to-head record is indescribable. Of their 29 meetings, Chelsea have won 11 against 10 for City. will be count on the day?
“I prefer City to have control of the ball, but Chelsea are so good in transition – they can catch any team. That’s what won them the FA Cup last year,” the former midfielder continued. Chelsea ground.
“It’s not a one off game, both teams had to earn the right to be here. It’s just the last game of the season. City are in great shape, the key players are back, there their remaining goals to score, right and center – confidence will be high.
“It’s just a matter of moments. Who can be clinical in these key moments?”
She added: “With the team they have, City should win trophies. It’s no surprise, we should talk about it in the cup final. It should be an expectation. There are always opportunities to improve, but that’s to be expected they demand to earn more trophies.
“There are a few players leaving Chelsea this season so maybe it’s the start of a transition period for them. Starting to bring in new players gradually. Kind of rebuilding. This group will want to win and get better. they do, it will cement them as the best team in England right now.”
The crescendo at Wembley Stadium this Sunday will therefore be revealing. If City triumph, it will mark one of the biggest single-season revivals women’s football has seen – even though City have been accustomed to success before.
If Chelsea emerge victorious, their imperious reign in women’s football will begin to rival Arsenal’s dominance of the 2000s. Their tallies do not yet match, but the Blues are beginning to position themselves as the powerhouse of women’s football in England.