The conclusion of the 12th edition of the Continental Cup promises to be an occasion bigger than ever before. A London derby, an intense rivalry, and a packed out Selhurst Park will see records broken and the season’s first silverware handed out.
There is no doubt that the League Cup is much maligned. It can often feel like the forgotten sister of the other competitions, with a lack of visibility in the group stage and the format constantly debated. This year, it has been the fact that the two finalists have only played two matches to get to this point that has called its integrity into question.
Nevertheless, Sunday presents a huge opportunity for both Arsenal and Chelsea to kickstart their ambitions of lifting silverware. Gunners captain, Kim Little is under no illusion of the role this trophy can play in the coming months. “I think it is important,” she said. “Within football, you have these different moments within seasons at different spells. Sometimes you have these negative moments which do spur you on, but then also you can have these really positive ones, like we did five years ago in the Conti Cup which then drove us on to win the league.”
Winning, after all is everything. Unbeaten in all competitions since September, it is a skill that Emma Hayes and her Chelsea side have mastered down to a tee. Their trophy haul is eye-catching and their ability to push themselves over the line, whether through the eclectic range of stars they have available on the pitch or just pure will is what sets them above the rest. A “mentality of champions”, Hayes called it last week as they once again got one over on their London rivals.
Captain Magda Eriksson puts their success down to winning being “at the heart of everything we do”, whether on the pitch or in training. “I think the driver is the mentality of the group and the mentality that Emma [Hayes] has spread across from her position out into the veins of the team,” she continues. “Even winning today in 3v3 in training, it almost feels like winning the FA Cup because it matters a lot. We keep scores; we talk about it consciously; we want people to really celebrate winning.”
It is a skill that Arsenal need to re-discover – that mental toughness and clinical edge. They are five times winners of this competition but haven’t found themselves winning a trophy of any kind since lifting the 2018-19 league title. For a club with the history and ambitions of the Gunners, it is a barren run that is starting to weigh heavy in North London.
“Chelsea have been dominant in the last number of years, and we haven’t picked up a trophy,” Little says. “That’s not without will and want – we obviously want that as players and as a club. We need to continue to keep aiming for that and taking the right steps to getting back to that position that we have been in before as a club.”
It doesn’t help that Jonas Eidevall’s side are in the midst of a poor run of form, having been hit by injuries to key players throughout the season. The absence of both Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema still leave a gaping hole – one that would impact any side – that the manager and his players are trying to figure out how to fill. Performances against Chelsea have improved but they are still nowhere near the level required. In the FA Cup last week, Arsenal controlled the ball and the chances but lacked real determination in making the most of opportunities.
In a way that adds extra importance to this opportunity of silverware. “[It is important] for both the team and for me, of course,” Eidevall says. “What we want to do and what we’re trying to achieve is to win. What we can control on the way is how we do things – how we are playing; how we are behaving; what our mindset is. That’s where we need to put 100% of our focus. If we’re doing that well enough, I believe that we have a good chance of winning a trophy.”
Whether Arsenal have enough about them to surprise Chelsea remains to be seen. One thing that is certain is that this is the biggest stage yet for the conclusion of this competition. Around 25,500 fans will fill the historic Selhurst Park, a sign of how much progress has been made, and for both sides the backing of their fans is everything, a driver to push on and win. “I think our fans have been phenomenal,” states Eidevall. “They’re loud; they’re passionate; they give everything for the team. I feel that; the team feels that. We want to do everything in our power to give that back to the fans. I hope they come in large numbers. I hope they are as loud as always and as passionate about the game as we are and let’s do our very best to achieve this thing together.”