Manchester City tactically flexed their muscles against West Ham in the first of the FA Cup semi-finals, comfortable 4-1 winners on a cloudless afternoon in east London.
Gareth Taylor’s side are now on the path to securing their second piece of silverware this season after their Continental Cup triumph against Chelsea in March, who they may face again should the Blues emerge victorious in the second semi-final against Arsenal on Sunday.
West Ham took a leaf from the book of the reigning champions, starting the game with an aggressive high press; clearly, they had taken some learnings from the 2-0 defeat suffered at the hands of City in the WSL a fortnight ago.
The 3-5-2 formation set up by Olli Harder looked to put those insights into practice, stifling and snuffing out the City attack, while testing a defense that featured two recent returnees from injury: Alanna Kennedy and Alex Greenwood.
For the most part, it worked. Both players were made to feel uncomfortable, Kennedy who appeared in a facemask having broken her nose in a friendly encounter against New Zealand on Tuesday, by Katerina Svitkova, and Greenwood by Lisa Evans. The latter had been nursing a bad knee, and it showed when she gave away possession and almost allowed Dagny Brynjarsdóttir to open the scoring in the 12th minute.
Still, City did not panic, and instead waited for West Ham’s collective press to stutter. That’s exactly what happened in the 22nd minute via an almighty strike at goal from Keira Walsh that rattled the underside of the crossbar. Before Mackenzie Arnold could figure out where the ball was, Ellen White had acted first to snap up another poacher’s finish.
City were now smelling blood, bypassing the press with ease and forcing them into playing panicked passes – one of which led to the second goal of the game. This time, it was captain Jill Flaherty who found Chloe Kelly with a peach of a ball across the box and the attacker did not fail to convert.
Fortunately, there would be some reprieve for the hosts on the verge of half-time, and they snatched back a goal through Evans in the 42nd minute. Proof that though this City team were littered with star names, these were names that had been playing international football this past week, some for 90 minutes and longer.
Taylor seemed to have that in mind on the other side of half-time when he brought on Hayley Raso for Kelly, living up the attack in the hopes that West Ham’s continued attempts to adopt and maintain a high press would tire again, and with that would come more goals, again.
The promise was fulfilled in the 66th minute via Lauren Hemp, who scored her 50th club goal, and City’s third of the game. Stealing possession from Lucy Parker, the City winger weaved her way into the West Ham box and then fired a low shot past Arnold into the bottom right-hand corner.
The West Ham keeper had faced three shots at her goal in the game and had picked the ball out of her net each time. The introduction of Georgia Stanway, who had scored six times and attended twice in eight appearances against the hosts, must not have been a welcoming sight.
Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw joined Stanway on the pitch, while West Ham looked to bolster their defense by bringing on Emma Snerle. It mattered very little, as Taylor brought about more changes and his side responded by pushing the opposition defense further and further into their own defensive third until Hemp was able to find a gap and score the fourth goal of the game.
At the final whistle, though West Ham approached the game with the appropriate zim and verve, they were out-thought and unable to keep up with White and Kelly as they led their team to a 17th win in 19 games across all competitions.
The focus now turns on Arsenal and Chelsea to see who City will be playing in this season’s FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium in May.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism