Arsenal show resolve to lift Conti Cup, deny Hayes quadruple on Chelsea exit

The celebrations were already emphatic after Stina Blackstenius calmly slotted home for Arsenal in the 115th minute of the Conti Cup final, sealing a 1-0 win against Chelsea. They became unequivocal once the final whistle had been blown at Molineux in Wolverhampton, England.

You could see what it meant to Jonas Eidevall, the Gunners’ manager, along with his players and fans; elation and relief were written across their faces. Given Arsenal are no longer in contention for the Women’s Super League (WSL), sitting six points behind Chelsea and Manchester City at the top of the table, and are already out of the FA Cup and Champions League, this was one the shot Eidevall had to add a trophy to his cabinet. Luckily, it was on target.

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The afternoon was heavily marred after Frida Maanum was stretchered off after collapsing off the ball in the fifth minute of stoppage time at the end of the 90. A spokesperson for the club told ESPN that the Norwegian player was “conscious, talking and in a stable condition” as the game went to extra time. However, perhaps the injury may have sparked the Gunners, making sure they lifted the trophy in honour of their teammate.

“One of the learnings from the game we had against Chelsea [3-1 league loss at Stamford Bridge, March 15] is that we as a group didn’t cope well with a high pressure/stressed environment,” Eidevall said after the match “This is probably one of the hardest situations, because it looks very scary when Frida goes down.

“It’s very easy to have the focus and emotions drawn to that point. But the reality is we have an excellent medical team, and they’re going to look after that situation and we need to focus on football, and we were able to do that.

“The first thing after the game, we don’t care about winning; we care about how Frida is. And I’m so happy that she’s doing well. That’s much more important than this. But in that moment, we need to stay task-orientated, and there’s nothing we can do to control that situation but control our football. That’s what we needed to do, and that’s what Frida wanted us to do as well, to make her a champion.”

Alessia Russo, who came on as a substitute for Maanum, told the BBC: “Obviously, it is devastating seeing one of your teammates go down like that, and we hope that she is OK. I think it was written in the stars that her best mate went and scored the winner for her.”

There is something about this competition for Arsenal, who were the defending champions, that brings out the best in them. But heading into the tie, Arsenal appeared somewhat of an underdog given to the dominance in the game of Chelsea boss Emma Hayes. Holding the title may have given his side an edge; perhaps it was the reality that the Gunners only had one trophy to show for the last five seasons or their impressive track record in the League Cup, having won it now seven times in its 13-year history; whatever it was, it worked.

Chelsea had been on course for a quadruple before Blackstenius struck late in the game to prevent a penalty shootout. With this being Hayes’ last season before taking up post as head coach of United States, Eidevall ensured that he remained victorious in his final match against his biggest adversary. Arsenal are still the only English side to have won four competitions in one season, having done so in 2006-07, when Hayes, ironically, was an assistant manager with the Gunners.

“I couldn’t care less about it to be honest,” Eidevall said of ending Chelsea’s quadruple dreams. “It’s not my driving force in the world to deny someone else to win anything.

“I was asked before if this game was more important for Arsenal than for Chelsea, and I said I always think it’s more important for Arsenal because winning with Arsenal is the most important thing, and that’s what was the important thing today.”

Winning this season is something Arsenal have struggled to do consistently. Whilst the Gunners can walk away from this final victorious and with a trophy in hand, the win does not simply blanket over their incredibly inconsistent season. Having turned out exceptional performances against top sides, they crumbled against bottom-of-the-table teams in frustrating fixtures.

Maybe for the first time since they thrashed Chelsea 4-1 at Emirates Stadium in December, Arsenal looked cohesive and confident, a far cry from the side that crumbled to a 3-1 defeat against the Blues two weeks ago. However, it was still wasteful, albeit from both sides, as the Gunners squandered numerous chances to take a vital lead, lacking the end product and clinical finish.

It might have been an up-and-down season, but Arsenal will always be at their best in a final; their history in the Conti Cup attests to that. They reached the final in the first five editions of the competition, won the first three and in the 13-year history have only lost three finals.

Compared to last year’s dominant performance, where Arsenal had clinched the win by the end of the first half having strolled into a 3-0 lead against Chelsea, this wasn’t a dramatic or comfortable victory. It was a cagey contest where, at any moment, either side could score against the run of play. The openness of the tie worked more to Arsenal’s advantage, who had developed their ability to play on the counter.

It is not always pretty, but the Conti Cup feels like it is Arsenal’s competition. The history, the strength in the face of adversity, makes it almost a cosmic alignment. Whether it was written in the stars or a stroke of luck against tired legs, Arsenal will be celebrating heading into the international break whilst Chelsea look to rebuild and continue either quest for a treble.

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