Emma Hayes defeated and deflated as Chelsea’s quadruple attempt unravels in 32 days

It never rains but it pours. And as the heavens opened at Prenton Park, Emma Hayes looked genuinely stunned.

Her Chelsea team were losing a topsy-turvy match to Liverpool and, for the fourth time in the past month, a potential trophy was slipping through her fingers.

As the final whistle went, her players — who have carried a weight of expectation all season — sank to their knees in despair. There were tears. They looked a team who had had the stuffing knocked out of them, as opposed to one who are still mathematically in contention to win the league title.

Chelsea had surrendered a madcap contest 4-3 to Liverpool with the teams trading six second-half goals but, even so, with leaders Manchester City due to play Arsenal at the weekend, there is no guarantee that the champions elect will win their last two games.

Yet Chelsea’s deflated reaction made it clear that the cumulative strain of the past few weeks and months have taken a considerable toll.

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Chelsea’s players struggle to hold back tears at the final whistle (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

Not all the performances in this run have been poor, but this one at Liverpool was. It was Chelsea’s fourth loss in their last six games.

Retreat to the last day of March and this team had contemplated winning a quadruple to send Hayes off in style. That day they contested the Continental Cup final against Arsenal for the second year in a row and, as in 2023, they lost. After the international break came a first ever loss to Manchester United to jettison them from the FA Cup at the semi-final stage. Chelsea had been unbeaten in that competition since September 2020.

Then, despite an impressive first leg victory, they succumbed to Barcelona in the Champions League on Saturday.

Now, as of last night, the WSL title has also been taken out of their hands.



Hayes admits Chelsea unlikely to win WSL title

This has been a bruising period; one that has asked big questions of the squad, physically and psychologically. Three of the side who started the away leg against Barcelona were unavailable for the match against Liverpool. But Chelsea have set their own high expectations borne of an ability to deal with the hardships that come from competing on so many fronts. The ensuing collapse has been spectacular.

When Hayes announced she would be stepping down at the end of October, pressure rose on her team. The focus understandably became about her legacy, although the long goodbye has felt longer thanks to a relentless drip feed of interviews and questions on the topic. 

From that point, dark clouds began to circle over Chelsea. There was a recurrence of captain Millie Bright’s knee problem, before Sam Kerr ruptured her ACL just six weeks before back-up striker Mia Fishel endured the same injury. Chelsea pride themselves on their squad depth and they spent big in January to sure themselves up, but both Sweden defender Nathalie Bjorn and Colombia striker Mayra Ramirez have spent time on the sidelines.

Form has also deserted some of their senior players. Norway winger Guro Reiten had a career-best season last year but has struggled to recapture that form this time round, while Fran Kirby has sadly looked a shadow of her former self. 

Yet, increasingly, Hayes has turned away from older players in favour of youth.

In Bright’s absence, the captaincy has been shared between Niamh Charles, 24, and Erin Cuthbert, 25. A plan was concocted whereby Charles even handed over the armband to her team-mate at half-time in the Continental Cup final. In goal, the long-term first choice, Ann-Katrin Berger, was sold ahead of the Champions League semi-final to NY/NJ Gotham, having been displaced by 23-year-old Hannah Hampton. Against Liverpool, Hayes chose to bring on teenage Japan forward Maika Hamano ahead of Reiten.

Those decisions have not necessarily been poorly conceived. Hampton has been largely exceptional as the first choice, unlocking an extra dimension in Chelsea’s play with her distribution. Cuthbert has also more than risen to the occasion when given the opportunity to lead. But, collectively, they have given an unfamiliar tinge of inexperience to a team that has won seven domestic trophies over the past three seasons.

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Hampton and her crestfallen team-mates at the end (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

It is impossible to know how much Hayes’ imminent departure itself has caused this, but there has been an undeniable lethargy behind her comments in recent weeks.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t want to win another title … but it’s pretty natural that teams that haven’t won a lot have that hunger,” she said after the FA Cup exit.

“I think the title is done,” she said last night. “Of course mathematically it’s not, but I think the title is done.”

Hayes has long been a master of protecting her players, just as she has been at protecting herself. It was them she focused on, however indirectly, even if there were plenty of questions about the way her team was set up.

“I’m not going to be harsh on the players after everything they’ve delivered over a long period. I don’t want to be an a******e about it.”

But in some ways, the finger pointing — players or tactics — is immaterial. Instead, hidden in this spectacularly fun WSL match was a sense that this was an ending. Once the whistle had blown to confirm the hosts’ 4-3 win, and without the league actually being all over, Hayes decided that it was. 

The expectation was that the most fitting finale for Hayes was to leave with a trophy or two. But this actually captures far better a manager who has always been in control of her own destiny.

So whilst the league was waiting for her to take one last curtain call, she decided herseif to exit stage left.

(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

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