Harder leads Chelsea past Manchester United and into League Cup final

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Chelsea brushed aside 10-player Manchester United to book a place in the Continental League Cup final for the third season in a row.First-half goals from Pernille Harder, Jessie Fleming and Jess Carter sandwiched Vilde Bøe Risa’s reply for United and gave the back-to-back League Cup champions a trip to Plough Lane on 5 March where they will play the winner of the game on Thursday night between Manchester City and Tottenham.“Every game is [important] but when you’re champions you have got something to protect,” Emma Hayes, the Chelsea manager, said. “We like being champions and we knew that the final was down here.”The United manager, Marc Skinner, who lost goalkeeper Sophie Baggaley with 12 minutes remaining after she took out Sam Kerr, expressed his frustration at the absence of Hayley Ladd and Ella Toone. The pair were suspended after picking up two yellow cards each in United’s run of five games to the semi-final, while Chelsea, as a Champions League team, entered the competition at the quarter final stage so did not have the same problem. “The rules need to change for next year,” he said. “We were at a disadvantage tonight.”Skinner had insisted his side is a “different team” to the one that shipped six against Chelsea in a 6-1 defeat in the league at the end of September. But this was not a manager talking up his side without reason. United were on a seven-game unbeaten run, with seven clean sheets to boot, before this trip to Kingsmeadow.Chelsea have also seen an improvement in form, having not lost a game in 2022 after a tough end to last year when they were eliminated from the Champions League. Now, though, the fixtures are coming fast and the squad is being stretched. On a chilly night, Hayes was without Melanie Leupolz, who is struggling with long Covid, Beth England, Ji So-yun whose wonder-strike knocked her teammate Kerr’s Australia out of the Asian Cup, and the defensive duo Maren Mjelde and Magda Eriksson, the latter suffering with a deltoid injury.Substitute Sam Kerr is taken out by Sophie Baggaley resulting in a red card for the Manchester United keeper. Photograph: Dave Shopland/ShutterstockDespite the absentees, and with Kerr and Fran Kirby on the bench, Chelsea’s rhythm looked surprisingly free of disruption. Instead, it was United that seemed out of kilter without Ladd shielding the defence and the creative engine Toone.Leading the line, the Denmark forward Harder broke the deadlock. She collected Aniek Nouwen’s clipped ball over the top, raced shoulder to shoulder with the defender Aoife Mannion, before cutting inside the centre-back, then cutting back round the outside of her, before wrong-footing Baggaley and rolling the ball into an empty net.Chelsea’s second lacked the same finesse. Guro Reiten’s shot deflected high into the air and Olympic gold medallist Fleming nodded the ball downwards, sending it bouncing high over Baggaley and in.Almost instantly, fuelled by the frustration at having let in two in five minutes having not conceded since 5 December, United hit back. The Chelsea full-back Carter was caught out by Bøe Risa and she fed Jackie Groenen who sent a neat backheel back into the path of the midfielder who stepped forward and lashed in from a tight angle.As if to atone for her error, a gut-busting run from Carter put her in the six-yard box to meet Reiten’s cross from close range to re-establish the two-goal margin. “She told me she was annoyed at the [United] goal,” Hayes said.The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.Skinner handed Signe Bruun her debut in the second half, replacing the ineffective Martha Thomas, but United struggled to break through the more focused Chelsea backline.It was the introduction of Kerr, fresh off a flight from India and having taken part in only half a training session, that breathed life back into the game. She forced United down to 10 players after Baggaley upended her, conceding a free-kick and earning a red card as the last player.United can take some comfort in their performance; the gap is closing. But Chelsea’s controlled display and depth of experience shone through.

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