Chelsea’s Hayes shrugs off pressure before title showdown with Arsenal

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Emma Hayes has played down the significance of Friday night’s top-of-the-table clash with Arsenal and said she expects the title race to go to the last game no matter the result.

“The twists and turns will go the whole way regardless of outcome,” the Chelsea manager said. “It’s not a game Arsenal need to win. A draw or even a loss in either direction isn’t necessarily defining.”

Arsenal have topped the Women’s Super League since an opening-day 3-2 defeat of Chelsea but are only two points clear of Hayes’s team, who have a game in hand. With both sides having dropped points to clubs outside the traditional top three there is plenty of sense behind the urge for caution.

Hayes’s opposite number, Jonas Eidevall, was similarly cagey about whether the game should be labelled a title decider. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “It’s the most important game because it’s the next game. This is about getting out there with an attitude and trying to win the game and not being afraid of losing.”

Eidevall ruffled feathers with his exorbitant celebrations on the opening day at the Emirates Stadium. His fiery presence on the touchline also recently resulted in back-to-back yellow cards, against Manchester City and Manchester United, to add to two earlier in the season.

A fist-pumping scream on his knees helped fuel the Chelsea players, who crushed Arsenal 3-0 in December’s FA Cup final. The budding rivalry between Hayes and Eidevall has been much more diplomatic this time, with neither seemingly wanting to provide further motivation for their opponents.

“He’s done an amazing job,” said Hayes. “They’re top of the league, he’s a passionate, emotional leader, and shares his ideas in a transparent way. He’s brought a lot to the league. For us to be the best league in the world we need the best managers.”

Eidevall was quick to congratulate Hayes on her OBE: “Big congratulations. She’s done an amazing job at Chelsea. Especially from a recruitment perspective, she has recruited some of the best talent in the world and she makes them work really hard together.”

Eidevall said he was working on softening his in-game approach. “I know it’s an important part of my development,” he said. “I think you need to be on fire to give off heat to the players – I’m a big believer in that – but I also think the coach has a role in making good decisions on that and sometimes I get carried away with refereeing decisions and I need to stop that. I know that. I’m not perfect but I’m working on trying to be.”

Eidevall will be without the influential winger/full-back Katie McCabe after she was sent off in last weekend’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United. The South Korean midfielder Ji So-yun is back with Chelsea after suffering an Asian Cup final defeat by China.

Chelsea are in the finer vein of form, with Arsenal having lost to Birmingham and drawn two of their other three WSL games since Christmas, but Eidevall’s team have been boosted by their late equalisers against Manchester City and Manchester United.

Jonas Eidevall has been a ‘passionate leader’ for Arsenal
Jonas Eidevall has been a ‘passionate leader’ for Arsenal. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

“It’s nice to score at the end,” he said. “But you see the buildup to when we score against Man City, I think that is just pure, brilliant teamwork. We lose the ball from a short pass a minute before we score.

“You see that all Arsenal players are sprinting back in that moment. You have no guarantees of winning the ball but you know if you have any chance of staying in that game that’s what you need to do.”

Against United, a sublime Vivianne Miedema pass from deep in her own half bounced smoothly into the run of the new signing Stina Blackstenius, who scored to cancel out Alessia Russo’s opener.

“It was a piece of art but the important thing was to score,” said Eidevall. “We needed that. You know you’re not going to create many chances when you are down to 10 players .

“That pass went all over the world and moments like that connect people.”

The combination of Blackstenius and Miedema could feature against Chelsea, but Eidevall would not divulge his plans. “We have the potential to play Viv and Stina together and that can be a strong connection,” he said. “I also think they can play separately, as two No 9s. That gives me good decisions and tools for Friday.”

Hayes credits Chelsea’s recent form – a 1-0 victory over Manchester City last weekend, four days after beating Manchester United 3-1 in the League Cup – to working with a smaller group because of injuries and players competing at the Asian Cup.

“When you have larger squads in the front end it does break something, or influence something,” she said. “The fact that we’ve had a small squad this side of Christmas has helped us. We train every day like it’s a cup final. The team is in a good moment. We have good momentum because we’ve been finding a level of consistency.”

Will the team that handle the pressure come out on top in this encounter? “People dealing with the rising cost of energy, that’s pressure,” Hayes said. “People in times where money is tight, that’s pressure. This isn’t pressure, this is great fun, this is entertainment. Yes it’s competitive but it’s not pressure.”

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