By their own exceptionally high standards, much of Manchester City’s 2021/22 season has been marked by mediocrity.
City had finished in the top two in the Women’s Superliga every year since opening in 2014, but now find themselves temporarily sacked.
For a campaign that started with such optimism – after finishing runners-up in the WSL and reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League the year before – City’s delivery did not live up to expectations.
By mid-November, having just lost 4-0 to Chelsea – their third home defeat of the season – the prospects were frighteningly bleak.
The form of that defeat was somewhat humiliating and put incalculable pressure on manager Gareth Taylor.
City are eighth in the WSL table, seven points behind third in the Champions League, and have amassed just seven points from seven games. The cost of a series of disappointing results.
Hopes for a relaunch of their languid season seemed incongruous at the time – but you can never rule out a team with as much technical knowledge and talent as Manchester City.
Fast forward six months and the turnaround was quite remarkable, if not completely surprising.
The state of the WSL table, while implied, didn’t exactly tell the whole story. City’s situation at the start of the season was largely circumstantial.
An incredibly long list of injuries – including captain Steph Houghton, FIFA Player of the Year award winner Lucy Bronze, both first-choice goalkeepers, as well as Chloe Kelly, Esme Morgan, Keira Walsh and Demi Stokes, among others – meant that the team de Taylor was suffering from inconsistencies never before experienced by such a successful squad. The instability was almost strange.
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The reset button had to be pressed.
City’s fortunes since the turn of the year have put their start to the campaign in sharp contrast. They have won 21 of their previous 23 draws in all competitions, including 13 straight wins.
They won their fourth Continental Cup – at Chelsea’s expense – and secured Champions League football for the new season. A rather unlikely feat halfway through the season.
Speaking with mancity.com this week defender Bronze admitted that City’s resurgence has made this year seem like “two seasons in one”. She also revealed that the early setbacks made the latest achievements “more special”.
City’s FA Cup dreams were dashed by Chelsea last season – so is it time for the axis to shift north once more? Does disappointment breed revenge?
The Sky Blues have already had a taste of silver this season, with this game presenting an interesting juncture. A 3-1 win over Chelsea in March almost took a load off Taylor and City. His early-season stutter can be attributed, in part, to his catalog of crippling injuries, but City’s League Cup coup signaled a return to true form.
Manchester’s blue side haven’t lost – or drawn – a game since lifting the Continental Cup. Impulse swing was used to great effect.
They also have a lot of recent history in FA Cup competition – national cups are on the cusp of becoming a fort, winning three of the last five FA Cup winners’ medals on offer (2017, 2019 and 2020). In fact, City hold a record of 100% wins in the FA Cup finals, having won three out of three.
So can the cup experts dismantle England’s newly crowned champions? The task is still substantial, but not impossible.
Chelsea, of course, are unfamiliar with the cup’s success. After all, they are the current FA Cup holders. In fact, both sides won the trophy three times in total and Sky Sports’ Karen Carney awaits another slim-margin occasion.
“It’s going to be tight,” she began. “You’re looking at the two most in-form teams. People will say ‘what about Arsenal?’ but I think Chelsea and City are the only ones.
“City have been unbeaten since the beginning of February – their goals are quite spectacular in this period. The own goals have also improved significantly. If you have 10 injured players, as it happened, it affects your training, your culture, the games, the results.
“Most of their key players are fitter and more stable. They’ve found their rhythm again. Part of me is for them.”
Face to face this season
- Last encounter in League Cup final at Plow Lane on 5 March – City came out from behind to win 3-1
- It was City’s first victory in 10 games. Chelsea had won seven of the previous nine
- Chelsea have won both WSL meetings this season – 4-0 away and 1-0 at home
In this case, form throughout the season is a problematic indicator. Carney believes that with a fully fit squad, the Sky Blues are more than a match for any domestic opponent, while also acknowledging the importance of Chelsea’s trophy-laden path to the top.
“Chelsea are WSL champions – coming from the euphoria of winning the league, they will want to double for the players who are leaving.
“But I only think about the big field, ball retention, what happened in the Copa Conti final – Man City will be confident. I give them the advantage.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a team cause Chelsea as many problems as Man City in that final. City caused as many problems down the flanks, in possession, moving the ball from one side to the other so well.
“If they can keep Sam Kerr quiet, they’ll definitely have a chance.
“That said, even if City dominate and are the best side – that doesn’t guarantee victory. Chelsea are resilient; in stressful moments they don’t panic, they solve problems, they get out of sticky situations. That’s why it’s going to be so tight.”
Separating the two sides is a complicated prospect; even their head-to-head record is indescribable. Of the 29 matches they have played, Chelsea have won 11 against City’s 10. willing count in the day?
“I’m all for City being in charge of the ball, but Chelsea are so good at transition – they can take any team. That’s what won the FA Cup last year,” continued the former Chelsea midfielder.
“This is not a one-off game, both teams had to earn the right to be here. This is just a final game of the season. City are in great shape, the main players are back, they are scoring goals, right and center – confidence will be high.
“It’s just a case of moments. Who can be clinical in these key moments?”
She added: “With the squad they have City should win trophies. It’s no surprise we should talk about them in the cup finals. It should be an expectation. There are always opportunities to improve but it’s to be expected they are demanding to win more trophies.
“There are some players leaving Chelsea this season, so this is perhaps the beginning of a transition period for them. Starting the new player phase. A sort of rebuilding. This group will want to win and if they do, it will cement it. 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 renaissances over a single season that women’s football has witnessed – however accustomed City may have previously been to success.
If Chelsea emerge victorious, their imperious reign over women’s football will begin to rival Arsenal’s dominance in the 2000s. Their accounts still don’t add up, but the Blues are starting to position themselves as the powerhouse of women’s football in England.