Semi-final heartbreaks have turned Chelsea into a winning machine – even when they're terrible

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Chelsea Women 2020
After beating Man Utd to the Conti Cup final, the Blues are causing talk of a treble having added gritty game management to attacking firepower

After Chelsea sealed their place in the Continental Cup final on Wednesday night, several players had apologies for their manager.

“I was awful tonight”, were the words uttered to Emma Hayes by more than a few members of her squad, who had just beaten Manchester United 1-0 away from home to win their first ever semi-final in the competition.

Hayes’ first words herself to the media described the game as “terrible”, while goal-scorer Maren Mjelde expressed relief at the game simply ending with a win, without a care in the world for how it was done.

However, it could be said that if the Blues had absolutely played their opponents off the park, they wouldn’t have felt as happy at full time as they did on Wednesday.

This was a team missing arguably the best player in the Women’s Super League this season, Ji So-yun, as well as star signing Sam Kerr, who are both away with their countries for Olympic qualifiers.

It was a glimpse into what life will be like for Chelsea over the next few games, with those two players not due back until at least mid-February.

But instead of one or two players stepping up and being the star, the entire team showed immense character and grit.

“To think we can win while being awful and make a final… I’m so happy, I’m so happy for the fans that have travelled up. They make such a difference for us,” Hayes said.

“I think most people would say winning teams have to have all sides [to them], and I think we showed another side to us tonight.

“I’m proud of the players for that. I think there’s a really good togetherness in the squad - they’ve always been a good bunch, but right now there’s a calmness, a composure to the team.”

The reasons behind that change aren’t ones that bring happy memories for the team.

Last season, Chelsea finished third in the WSL, and reached the semi-finals of all three of the cup competitions: the FA Cup, the Conti Cup and the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

It was a season of near misses for a team who came excruciatingly close to knocking out the powerhouse that is Lyon on the continent.

But this victory showed that in the short space of time since those disappointments, her team have grown and matured marvellously.

“There’s a hunger in our group this year that wasn’t there last year,” Hayes added. “There’s a stronger mentality in the group. Setbacks create that.”

Against Man Utd, Chelsea’s game management was exceptional. Their work-rate was outstanding and the grit and determination to find and take the only chance of the game was the difference.

The scorer of that goal, Mjelde, epitomised all of that.

Naturally a centre-back or central midfielder, Mjelde has been playing regularly as a right-back this season, consistently a top performer across the whole league.

On Wednesday, the Norwegian was asked to play a very different role – as a right winger.

“I’ve probably never been a right winger in my life before,” she laughed after the game.

If you hadn’t known that beforehand, you wouldn’t have guessed it. On the right of Hayes’ adapted 4-4-2 set-up, Mjelde was industrious and didn’t put a foot wrong, before smashing the ball into the top corner to win the game.

“I have had a couple of goals in training lately and I just thought just 'go for it' instead of passing – and it went well,” she said, with her typical modesty.

“Sometimes you just have that feeling. I had two really good touches before the finish and I’m just really happy about it.

“It probably wasn’t the best performance but I don’t really care about that to be honest right now. It’s about winning those games.

“We’re starting to win both on really good days and not so good days, which is really important. That’s what winners do.”

Hayes laughed off suggestions of a domestic treble – “bloody hell, Jesus” being her exact words.

It’s definitely too early to be talking about that sort of thing, but it’s not too far-fetched.

Chelsea are into the final of the Conti Cup, through to the fifth round of the FA Cup and currently sit third in the league – one point behind both Arsenal and Man City, albeit with a game in hand.

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In fact, a win over West Ham this weekend could take them top of that table, with their two fellow title contenders to face off on Sunday.

Consider that Ji and Kerr will be back very soon, and it’s all looking very good for Hayes and her side.

Not bad for a team who were absolutely terrible last night.