The last remnant of the pandemic-disrupted domestic fixture list edges closer with the 2020-21 FA Cup semi-finals taking place on Sunday. And, with the 50th final of the competition scheduled to take place on 5 December, 100 years to the day since the Football Association effectively banned the women’s game by barring matches from being played at FA-affiliated grounds, there is a poignancy to this season’s competition and the showpiece Wembley final.
The climax of this season’s tournament will be restored to its traditional May date in the calendar, meaning there are four domestic titles and the Champions League to play for in the 2021-22 season. To win the FA Cup, for each of the final four teams left in it, would not just be a trophy in the cabinet but also a marker in the development of each side in different ways.
For three teams, the position is familiar. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have passed the trophy between them for the past eight seasons, and the holders City have won three of the previous four finals. The chances of the cup being retained by Gareth Taylor’s side seem slim, though. City play Chelsea in the last four for the fifth time in seven years but are struggling with a staggering injury list.
A few months into Taylor’s first season in charge last year, City won the FA Cup. Getting back to Wembley, in front of fans, when his players have their backs to the wall would mark a huge turning point in the beleaguered club’s fortunes .
But if Taylor is feeling the pressure, he is not showing it and before their Women’s Super League fixture against Arsenal insisted he was enjoying the tough times. “In a mad sort of way I’m actually enjoying this feeling – it’s not a nice feeling, don’t get me wrong, but I’m feeling this kind of siege mentality,” he said.
City failed that test thrashed 5-0 by the Gunners, and they have picked up just four points from five league games. A win against Chelsea to reach a Wembley final would be a statement, but Taylor said he is not looking for a statement win: “We just need to win, simple as that. We understand where we are at with injuries. We have some players who are unavailable for crazy reasons but we’re making the best of it and it’s about winning.”
Chelsea have found their flow following an opening day 3-2 defeat by Arsenal at the Emirates. However, manager Emma Hayes is not contemplating any complacency given City’s struggles. “When it gets to a semi-final, I don’t care who the opponent is, it’s a leveller because every single player, no matter what club they play for, know they are one step from a final,” she said.
“It’s a huge opportunity and one that anything can happen. It’s so different to a league game, why? I don’t know. There tends to be a little more drama, a little more nervous energy in teams but that’s because there is something at stake.”
Arsenal or Brighton face each other in the late kick-off and record 14-time winners Arsenal, reaching the final and lifting the trophy would show that the team’s progress under new manager Jonas Eidevall is not abating. The decision, negotiated with the Netherlands manager Mark Parsons, to rest striker Vivianne Miedema against Belarus in the international break and Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final, speaks to Eidevall’s squad depth and long-term goals.
Coming unstuck against Brighton would puncture the air of invincibility to the Gunners’ domestic campaign and in former forward Danielle Carter they face a familiar opponent, one who delivered the FA Cup-winning goal at the 2016 final. For Brighton manager Hope Powell a defeat of Arsenal and a trophy would be just reward for after three years of progress at the south coast club. Brighton sit fifth in the league and are arguably the dark horses in the race to be the best of the rest.
“We have more to gain than we have to lose and that takes the pressure off and I’d argue puts a bit on Arsenal,” said Powell. “The pressure is on Arsenal, the expectation is on them to win. We go in to enjoy it and try to win, why not?”