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League Cup final is season-defining match for Arsenal

Arsenal's Alessia Russo

Whether Arsenal’s season is looked back upon positively or negatively now rests on one pivotal game: Sunday’s Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup final against Chelsea.

Having already been knocked out of the Women’s FA Cup, dropped out of the Women’s Champions League in the qualifying rounds and slipped six points behind their Women’s Super League title rivals, the game at Molineux is – realistically – their last remaining opportunity for silverware this season.

It is an unusual situation for the most decorated club in the English women’s game to find themselves in and explains why the League Cup final now feels significantly more important to Arsenal than to Chelsea, who are still in contention for a quadruple.

It is a final that could swing either way, as this season’s blockbuster matches between the two sides demonstrate.

In December, Arsenal outplayed Emma Hayes’ side and powered to a 4-1 victory at the Emirates, but in this month’s reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea raced into a three-goal half-time lead and won convincingly 3-1. It was a night when Arsenal appeared to lack intensity, resilience and any suitable plan to cope with Lauren James.

Several key battles are likely to define this latest meeting between the two teams, which is also a repeat of last season’s final, won 3-1 by Arsenal.

Can Russo thrive against Chelsea’s injury-hit back-line?

There will be no Millie Bright for Chelsea, with the England centre-back out with a knee problem until at least after the April international break, and their January signing Nathalie Bjorn is cup-tied. So the pairing of Jess Carter and Kadeisha Buchanan, who helped Chelsea overcome Ajax in the Champions League quarter-finals, are likely to start at centre-back again on Sunday.

Arsenal’s England striker Alessia Russo enjoyed one of her best games yet in an Arsenal shirt when she scored twice against Chelsea in December and this is another opportunity for her to step up on the big occasion.

Will Arsenal cut out their errors at the back?

The north Londoners were sloppy in defence at Stamford Bridge and will need to be error-free this time around. They might find themselves up against fit-again Colombia striker Mayra Ramirez after she scored the first Champions League goal of her career on Wednesday, while the threats of England’s James and youngster Aggie Beever-Jones remain ominous.

Arsenal centre-back Leah Williamson has played four WSL matches since returning from her long-term knee injury, starting three of those, and understandably she is not yet looking back to her world-class best as she continues to build match sharpness. However, her role will be key on Sunday against Chelsea’s dangerous front line, even in the absence of Sam Kerr and Mia Fishel, who have both suffered anterior cruciate ligament injuries.

Leah Williamson
Leah Williamson, right, is back if not to her best just yet - Richard Pelham/The FA via Getty Images

Will Arsenal play with grit – or be ‘soft’ again?

After Arsenal’s loss at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal legend Ian Wright criticised the performance as “soft”, lamenting the lack of second balls that Arsenal had won. Those are the kind of verdicts that Jonas Eidevall’s team will be determined to avoid hearing again.

In contrast, the team’s intensity and determination was praised after their late win at Aston Villa last time out, with Eidevall saying: “Our second half was probably our best 45 minutes against the low block. That second-half performance I was really pleased with, [it was] a really good step in the right direction for us against low blocks.”

Is this game of greater significance for Arsenal?

Asked if it was fair to say this final was more important to Arsenal than Chelsea, Eidevall replied: “I will always say everything is more important for us. Of course, it’s the most important thing for us that we win. An Arsenal win is the most important thing.”

He also spoke of the importance of their supporters, adding: “When we speak about motivation for the players, to win for our fans, for all the hours that they put in travelling and supporting our team, it’s for them we need to play, it’s for them we need to win.

“What they’re doing for us, it’s so special. If there is something that needs that extra push for that, it’s our supporters.”

When posed the same question, Chelsea manager Hayes said: “Have you watched our performances in the last two Conti Cup finals? Because I have and they [the players] have – again and again. Let me be clear on this: the team knows exactly how I feel about that final on Sunday in terms of showing up and showing ourselves. I don’t care if it’s important to them [Arsenal], it absolutely is important to me.”

Hayes is referring to the fact that Chelsea have lost the past two League Cup finals, to Manchester City and then Arsenal, which has contributed to the fact that Chelsea are the third-most successful team in this 13-year-old cup’s history, with two wins. Arsenal have lifted this trophy six times and Manchester City four. No other side has ever won it.

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