Chelsea took another significant step towards securing back-to-back WSL titles with a 2-2 draw at Manchester City on Wednesday night. In a lively end-to-end encounter Sam Kerr opened the scoring with a header in the 25th minute. Chloe Kelly equalised just before the half hour, but the reigning champions were back in front four minutes later when Pernille Harder converted from the penalty spot. City were much the better side after the break and Lauren Hemp got them back on terms with 16 minutes to go. Chelsea keeper Ann-Katrin Berger then made two outstanding stops from Hemp and Georgia Stanway, before Lucy Bronze headed agonisingly wide in the dying seconds…
Manchester City 2-2 Chelsea
“It was a resilient performance. Not a good performance, a resilient one. We took our goals well, but we made hard work of it in the second half. We were very poor by our standards and I’m just grateful to get the point. It was really tough. As I say time and time again, you can score goals to win games but defence wins championships.”Emma Hayes, Manager, Chelsea, via chelseafc.com
Both sides were without a talismanic captain and centre half through injury. Steph Houghton was still unavailable for City, while Magda Eriksson had to endure the frustration of failing a late fitness test.
Gareth Taylor made four changes to the side that beat Spurs; Aiofe Mannion and Esme Morgan made way for Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood. Demi Stokes returned at left back and Lauren Hemp came back in on the left wing. Janine Beckie and Georgia Stanway dropped to the bench.
Chelsea boss Emma Hayes put versatile Welsh international Sophie Ingle into Eriksson’s central defensive role, Jess Carter replaced Niamh Charles at right back and Ji So-yun took back one of the the deep lying midfield roles from Drew Spence.
Sam Mewis had the first meaningful sight of goal heading up and over from five yards out after Stokes, Caroline Weir and Hemp had worked a crossing opportunity on the left.
Chelsea took a bit of time to find their way into the contest but eventually they carved an opening. City centre back Greenwood cleared Kerr’s languid, looping heading off the line from an Erin Cuthbert corner.
This same route to goal would work to give the Blues a 25th minute lead. Cuthbert, again, drove the ball in from the right and Kerr stole half a yard on her marker to power home at the front post.
It nearly got worse for the home side, playing out from the back, when Keira Walsh sold Stokes short and Kirby was on to it, playing in Kerr who flashed a first time effort just wide off the outside of her boot.
City equalised four minutes after going behind. Mewis and Walsh made a better fist of playing out and sent Weir racing down the left. The Scot moved the ball on to Hemp who beat Carter for acceleration and fizzed in a cross that Millie Bright didn’t deal with. While the other defenders all focused on Ellen White, Kelly ghosted in and scored from close range.
But another mistake in possession would give Chelsea a chance to restore their lead. Defender Abby Dahlkemper – usually so reliable on the ball – misplaced a simple pass and Melanie Leupolz picked it off instantly sending Kerr on her way. The Australian isolated Greenwood, cut inside her at pace and then won the foot race with keeper Ellie Roebuck to draw a foul.
It looked soft on the television replays, especially with the ball rolling away from goal and Mewis arriving to cover, but referee Rebecca Welch had no doubt in her mind. Pernille Harder stepped forward, waited for Roebuck to move and fired down middle to register her ninth league goal since joining the club.
Again the hosts looked to raise their game. Weir’s free-kick delivery from the right was only half dealt with and Lucy Bronze tried a clever half-volley with her back to goal that Berger did well to tip over.
Kerr could have given the Blues some breathing space early in the second period but drove her effort wide after some tenacious work from Kirby near the by-line.
But Kirby would provide the hosts with their way back in the 74th minute, playing a horribly loose back pass that Kelly seized on instantly. The City winger tried to feed Mewis arriving on the penalty spot, but Bright was in the way. Sadly for the defender, she made a complete hash of her clearance and Hemp swooped in to drill past Berger from eight yards.
Game on and City knew that one more goal could be enough to beat a Chelsea side that was visibly tiring, and in doing so turn the title race on its head. Ann-Katrin Berger, however, had other ideas.
Greenwood swung in a fierce, curling corner delivery, Hemp met it at the front post with as good a contact as she could have wished for, glancing the ball towards the keeper’s top right hand corner. Berger’s reflexes took over and she somehow flicked the ball on to the cross ball; a reaction stop to rival anything the league will see this season.
There were now only brief periods of respite between waves of City attacks, but substitute Guro Reiten had a chance to make the result safe for Chelsea. The Norwegian couldn’t get her angles right and fired just past the post.
City roared forward once more. Kelly again provided the service from her position wide on the right; Hemp this time couldn’t control her header. Bronze recycled the attack finding substitute Stanway who hared into the penalty box and rifled a shot goalward that Berger parried instinctively.
And then the moment that could be pivotal in deciding where the FA WSL Trophy heads in 2020/21. Greenwood clipped in a pinpoint cross from wide on the left. Bronze could see it all the way and knew she had the run on Andersson. Her timing was impeccable. Her power was spot on. The direction was half a yard shy. Bronze collapsed on the ground in despair. The game was up.
The title, however, was not. And Kerr had one more chance to all-but wrap things up for the season off a Bethany England flick. A five point lead would surely be insurmountable but Ellie Roebuck’s save low to her left ensured that there will still be more meaningful football to play in the coming weeks.
“It was an entertaining match for the neutral, but I felt we edged the opportunities… I thought the girls left everything out there, played some really good stuff and dominated proceedings. We just ran out of time in the end. I’m proud of the football we’ve played and the entertainment we’ve brought by scoring goals and playing exciting football. I can only see us improving. We just want to finish strongly in the final two games – that’s all we can control.”Gareth Taylor, Manager, Manchester City, via mancity.com
At face value this match was a title decider and Chelsea – two points clear with a better goal differential – knew that not losing would give them a significant advantage. But there are still 180+ minutes of football to be played and neither Tottenham nor Reading are going to roll over for them despite 4-0 and 5-0 defeats last time out, respectively.
Spurs gave the Blues a bit of an unexpected scare earlier in the season at Kingsmeadow delivering an opening 25 minutes as good as anyone has come up with against Emma Hayes’ side before a rather disappointing second half capitulation. Reading, meanwhile, have proved that they can go toe-to-toe with the top clubs on a good day – holding Arsenal and City to draws and beating Manchester United this season.
Chelsea head to Germany next to take on FC Bayern München in the semi-final of the Champions League, knowing that the ‘quadruple’ is still on.
For Manchester City, well their 12-game win streak came to an end but they have been the Super League’s form team since the turn of the year. Nobody wins the league in October the pundits say, but one wonders if it is possible to lose it all the way back then. A poor start to the campaign (by City’s standards) was the reason they had to beat Chelsea this week.
The ‘Cityzens’ complete their fixture list with a road trip to West Ham United. Before that, though, they host Birmingham City. Both opponents are still fighting for their lives down the bottom of the table.
Manager Gareth Taylor will have his players focused on being professional and controlling the ‘controllables’. Six points from those games would ramp up pressure on a Chelsea side who have more high-stake matches to juggle. It wouldn’t be a big surprise, then, if City were to close out their season a lot more comfortably than Chelsea. Could that mean that there’s one last unexpected twist in the tale..?