55,000 tickets have been sold for the season's showpiece event at Wembley; This weekend marks first time men's and women's finals have been held back-to-back; Karen Carney says 'the two most in-form teams will make for tightly contested final'
Sunday 15 May 2022 14:35, UK
By their own exceptionally high standards, vast portions of Manchester City’s 2021/22 season have been marred by mediocrity.
City had finished inside the Women's Super League top two every year since their inaugural one in 2014, but now find themselves temporarily ousted.
For a campaign that began with such optimism - after finishing runners-up in the WSL and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals the year prior - City's delivery has, or was, failing to match expectation.
In mid-November, having just lost 4-0 to Chelsea - their third home loss of the season - the outlook was alarmingly bleak.
The manner of that defeat was somewhat humbling and heaped untold pressure on manager Gareth Taylor.
City sat eighth in the WSL table, seven points adrift of the third Champions League spot, and had amassed just seven points from seven games. The cost of a string of disappointing results.
Hopes of a relaunch to their languid season looked incongruous back then - but you can never write off a team with as much technical knowhow and talent as Manchester City.
Fast forward six months and the turnaround has been quite remarkable, if not completely surprising.
The state of the WSL table, while implicating, didn't exactly tell the whole story. City's early season plight was largely circumstantial.
A staggeringly long injury list - including captain Steph Houghton, Best FIFA Women's Player recipient Lucy Bronze, both first choice goalkeepers plus Chloe Kelly, Esme Morgan, Keira Walsh and Demi Stokes, among others - meant Taylor's side were suffering with inconsistencies never before experienced by such a successful squad. Instability was almost alien.
Follow Chelsea vs Man City in the Women's FA Cup final in our dedicated live blog across Sky Sports' digital platforms.
The reset button had to be hit.
City's fortunes since the turn of the year put their start to the campaign in sharp contrast. They have won 21 of their previous 23 ties in all competitions, including 13 victories in succession.
They have clinched their fourth Continental Cup - at the expense of Chelsea - and secured Champions League football for the new term. A quite improbable feat at the season's halfway point.
Speaking to mancity.com this week, defender Bronze admitted City's resurgence has made this year feel like "two seasons in one". She also disclosed early setbacks have made latter achievements "more special".
City's FA Cup dreams were ultimately dashed by Chelsea last season - so is it time for the axis to shift north once again? Does disappointment breed vengeance?
The Sky Blues have had a taste of silverware already this season, with that game itself presenting an interesting juncture. The 3-1 victory over Chelsea in March almost lifted a weight off Taylor and City. Their early season stutter can be attributed, in part, to their crippling injury catalogue, but City's league cup coup signalled a return to true form.
The blue side of Manchester are yet to lose - or draw - a game since lifting the Continental Cup. The momentum swing has been used to great effect.
They also have plenty of recent history in FA Cup competition - domestic cups are almost becoming a forte, winning three of the past five FA Cup winners medals on offer (2017, 2019 and 2020). City actually hold a 100 per cent winning record in FA Cup finals, having won three of three.
So, can the cup specialists dismantle the newly crowned champions of England? The task is still substantial, but not impossible.
Chelsea are, of course, not unfamiliar to cup success themselves. They are the current FA Cup holders, after all. In actual fact, both sides have won the trophy three times in total and Sky Sports' Karen Carney expects another occasion of scant margins.
"It'll be tight," she began. "You're looking at the two most in-form teams. People will say 'what about Arsenal?', but I think Chelsea and City are the ones.
"City are unbeaten since early February - their goals for are pretty spectacular in this period. Goals against are also significantly improved. If you have 10 players out injured, as they did, that affects your training, your culture, the games, the results.
"The bulk of their main players are back fit, and they've got more stability. They've found their rhythm again. Part of me favours them."
In this instance, form across the entire season is a problematic gauge. Carney believes with a fully fit squad, the Sky Blues are more than a match for any domestic opposition, while also acknowledging the significance of Chelsea's trophy-laden path to the top.
"Chelsea are WSL champions - coming off the back of the euphoria of winning the league, they'll want to do the double for the players that are leaving.
"But I just think on the big pitch, ball retention, what happened in the Conti Cup final - Man City will be rightly confident. I give them the edge.
"I haven't seen a team cause Chelsea as many problems as Man City did in that final for a long time. City caused so many issues down the flanks, with possession, moving the ball from side to side so well.
"If they manage to keep Sam Kerr quiet, they've definitely got a chance.
"That being said, even if City do dominate and are the better side - it doesn't guarantee the win. Chelsea are resilient; in stressful moments they don't panic, they problem solve, they get out of sticky situations. That's why it's going to be so tight."
Picking apart the two sides is a tricky prospect; even their head-to-head record is nondescript. Of their 29 meetings, Chelsea account for 11 wins to City's 10. So, what will count on the day?
"I favour City to be in command of the ball, but Chelsea are so good in transition - they can catch any team out. That's what won them last year's FA Cup," the former Chelsea midfielder continued.
"This is not a one-off game, both teams have had to earn the right to be here. This is just a final game of the season. City are in great form, key players are back, they're scoring goals left, right and centre - confidence will be sky high.
"It's just a case of moments. Who can be clinical in those key moments?"
She added: "With the squad they've got, City should be winning trophies. It's no surprise, we should be talking about them in cup finals. It should be an expectation. There are opportunities to improve always, but it's to be expected they're demanding to win more trophies.
"There are a few players leaving Chelsea this season, so this is maybe the start of a transition period for them. Starting to phase new players in. A rebuild of sorts. This group will want to win it and if they do, it will cement them as the best team in England right now."
The crescendo at Wembley Stadium this Sunday will therefore be telling. Should City triumph, it will mark one of the greatest revivals across the course of a single season women's football has witnessed - however accustomed City have previously been to success.
If Chelsea emerge victorious, their imperious reign over the women's game will start to rival Arsenal's dominance of the noughties. Their tallies don't yet match, but the Blues are beginning to position themselves as the powerhouse of women's football in England.