At times Chelsea were clinging on towards the end of this absorbing encounter on Women’s Football Weekend, and Casey Stoney’s Manchester United came close to squeezing a point out of the match… but in the end, the Blues beat the Reds 1-0 to ensure they remain top of the Women’s Super League.
The 4,790 crowd at Kingsmeadow on Sunday afternoon was a record turnout for a WSL match that wasn’t being played as an event one-off at a men’s Premier League ground. In other words, the biggest and best legitimate woman’s club game of all time!
Yet Chelsea’s first-half showing barely deserved a draw, never mind a victory. Suffering individual international hangovers after being scattered to the four winds on their country’s duty, the components of the team seemed unable to stitch together a collective approach to overcome their rivals, who last season were playing in the Championship.
United soon sensed that there was the real prospect of an upset. Ragged in possession, sloppy in intent, Chelsea found themselves vulnerable to Man U breaks, led by the jinking footwork of Lauren James, younger sis of Blues new right back Reece.
Chelsea looked distracted. This was not a knitted-together performance, although Guro Reiten sent a shot arcing on the roof of the net, Swiss star Ramona Bachmann (fresh from an international hat-trick) fired wide and a Millie Bright header was firmly grabbed out of the air by England keeper Mary Earps.
A turning point came shortly before the half hour when Ann-Katrin Berger, rushing out to intercept, flung herself at the feet of James, and got a boot in the face for her trouble. For three worrying minutes, as the keeper thrashed her legs around in obvious agony, she was treated on the pitch.
On the touchline, sub Carly Telford warmed up. But Berger decided to soldier on. The downtime gave the Chelsea team the chance to take on liquids, but also to get a roasting from manager Emma Hayes as she berated her players for not playing with the concentration and togetherness she expects.
Chelsea’s performance began to pick up, although had ref Jack Packman done his job more bravely it would have got easier still. Having booked Amy Turner in the 15th minute for theatrically falling on the ball and holding it in her hands, she should really have been shown a second yellow with four minutes to go before the interval after clattering Reiten.
Packman reached for his pocket, then twigged that he had already cautioned Turner… and decided against what should have been a second yellow and a sending off.
Though goalless at half-time, Fran Kirby (who had been warming up for 20 minutes) came on after 64 minutes for Reiten, and almost immediately earned a penalty after being tackled in the area by Millie Turner. Maren Mjelde scored… just! Her spot kick went towards the corner of the net, but Earps summoned up surprising aerobatic ability to reach it with her fingertips. But she just couldn’t keep it out, and the Blues were 1-0 up.
With 74 minutes gone, Ella Toone came on as a United sub for captain Katie Zelem, and so nearly levelled. Her shot was batted on to the crossbar by Berger, bounced downwards close to the goal line, and was hoofed to safety by Bright – the closest shave Chelsea had all afternoon.
“You can’t be sure you’ll win every Sunday afternoon,” said Berger afterwards, adding that she practised and practised against penalty takers such as Kirby week in, week out in training. “Maybe the bang on the head in the first half made the save [possible]! It was just an instinct save, but it was a pretty good moment.
“I hope it pays off towards the end of the season.”
Chelsea stay top ahead of the Conti Cup match against Spurs at Kingsmeadow on Wednesday at 7pm, when Telford will start in goal, and several of the players who missed out on starting places in this fascinating tussle will get their chance to shine.
From Casey Stoney’s perspective, this was a measure of how well her team have advanced in just a few months. To go toe-to-toe with Chelsea, and so nearly eke out a draw, is impressive. “Chelsea are top of the league for a reason,” was Stoney’s candid comment at Kingsmeadow.
For Hayes there was a mix of relief and joy that, despite the distraction of international football, her team had done enough to win. She paid tribute to Berger’s flying save, and pointed to the quality she could draw on from the bench as key factors in the win.