Chelsea’s final FA Cup campaign under outgoing manager Emma Hayes got off to a difficult start, as they eventually dispatched a determined West Ham United 3-1.
Chelsea, the winners in each of the last three seasons, were expected to comfortably progress past the Women’s Super League (WSL) strugglers, but they trailed for much of the game and required extra-time to get the job done.
Chelsea dominated the early exchanges, with Lauren James, leading the line in place of the injured Sam Kerr, coming closest with an attempted lob from 30 yards that was not far from finding its way in.
West Ham had clearly come with a plan to disrupt Chelsea’s possession and frustrate them with a disciplined defensive structure and they settled into the game quickly.
It was the visitors who silenced the home crowd on 17 minutes as Chelsea were caught sleeping with a simple ball over the top that energetic striker Viviane Asseyi was able to take into her stride and power past Zecira Musovic into the far corner.
Chelsea continued to dominate the ball without creating any clear-cut chances, with West Ham happy to sit on their lead and be resolute in their defensive shape.
Chelsea’s frustration on the pitch was mirrored in the stands, with West Ham goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold’s time wasting from around the half hour point causing consternation amongst supporters.
The second half proved no different to the first with Chelsea struggling to translate their dominance of the ball into goal scoring threat.
After 60 minutes Hayes had evidently seen enough with a triple substitution seeing Mia Fishel, Melanie Leupolz and debutant Nathalie Bjorn being introduced into the fray.
The changes, combined with a slight tactical adjustment reinvigorated Chelsea, with Fishel’s introduction allowing Lauren James to drop into her preferred, deeper role behind the more traditional number nine.
Chelsea’s perseverance eventually paid off as the ever-impressive Erin Cuthbert gathered the ball in the West Ham half. Her penetrating pass cut the West Ham defence wide open and played Rytting Kaneryd through down the right.
Her cross across goal evaded a blue shirt, but possession was recycled and fell to Fishel on the penalty spot who managed to turn and fire into the roof of the net to equalise.
The game limped to full time, with West Ham offering little attacking threat and Chelsea labouring in their attempts to force a winner.
But the reigning champions quality eventually came through as they pulled away from the Hammers in extra time.
The ever-threatening Rytting Kaneryd picked up the ball on the right and produced an inch perfect cross between the West Ham centre backs that saw the Scottish international Cuthbert rise highest to guide a header into the far corner and give the blues a deserved lead.
The goal seemed to kill the spirit of the visitors and gave life to the home fans as two quickly became three. Aggie Beever-Jones was introduced and her first involvement saw her play a one-two with Leupolz who cleverly scooped the ball over the West Ham defence to allow the academy graduate to put the ball on a plate for Sjoeke Nusken to tap in.
Reflecting on the 3-1 win, Hayes said: “The players from the bench showed their qualities and Bjorn was tremendous on her debut.
“In the end we looked like comfortable winners, and we looked like we just hadn’t had a game in three or four weeks.”
Player of the Match Erin Cuthbert said: “It was always going to be difficult on the first day back and we started slow then conceded a poor goal.
“We can’t always win games in the first half, but we know that if we keep plugging away, we will eventually break teams down and we did that.”
Chelsea now switch their attentions back to the league, with over 20,000 expected as Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Starting line up: