The Barclays Women’s Super League title race remains tantalisingly poised after the spoils were shared in a six-goal thriller at the Academy Stadium.
An action-packed opening to this top-of-the-table clash indicated we were going to be in for one heck of an afternoon, but little could prepare us for a final half-hour which marks this out as the most entertaining game of the WSL era.
Both sides missed clear opportunities before Ellen White put Manchester City in front with a tidy finish from close range, but the Blues ended the first half in the ascendancy after Ji So-Yun scored yet another vital goal at the home of our big rivals to draw us level.
The South Korean may have had a touch of good fortune with the aid of a deflection, but the quality of her strike could not be questioned and we deservedly went in at the interval all square.
Although the home side took the lead against the run of play through Georgia Stanway with an hour played, it was simply the start of a breathless 16-minute spell in which four goals were scored and a penalty was missed.
We drew level for the second time in the game when Magdalena Eriksson powered home a diving header from Sophie Ingle’s flick-on, but just moments later City had the chance to restore their lead when they were awarded a penalty.
Ann-Katrin Berger had other ideas, though, palming away Stanway’s spot-kick – and it looked to be a crucial intervention as we finally went in front for the first time.
Having missed a big chance early on, Bethany England netted her 14th WSL goal of the campaign with another stunning effort. There appeared to be little on when she picked up the ball 25 yards from goal but she let fly with a strike which arrowed into the top corner.
There was still another twist in the tale, as Lauren Hemp prodded home an equaliser for City just two minutes after they’d gone behind and neither side was able to find a winner despite stoppage time taking us beyond 100 minutes of unmissable entertainment.
Although we remain winless in the WSL at the Academy Stadium, with this our fourth draw from seven matches, and the home side still holding a one-point advantage at the top of the table, we can certainly take plenty of positives back to London.
As well as maintaining our unbeaten record this season, a game in hand means the title race is still in our own hands. And after all that, we've got the Continental League Cup final to look forward to next Saturday, with a chance to win the trophy for the first time in our history.
In our most recent outing we booked an FA Cup quarter-final trip to Everton with a hard-fought win over Liverpool on Monday night and six days on from that fixture, Hayes opted to make just one change to her starting line-up. Hannah Blundell was the player to miss out, allowing Sam Kerr to come back into the side for the first time since returning from international duty.
Berger continued between the sticks, with Maren Mjelde dropping back into the back four in the absence of Blundell, where she was joined by Millie Bright, Eriksson and Jonna Andersson. Erin Cuthbert moved into midfield after a spell up front, playing alongside Ingle, Ji and Guro Reiten, while England and Kerr resumed their partnership in attack.
In a clear sign of what was to come over the next 90 minutes, the Blues should have gone in front after only 20 seconds. Reiten slid in Kerr, whose shot was saved by the foot of Ellie Roebuck but only into the path of England. You’d have put your mortgage on the Blues No9, the WSL’s in-form striker, applying the finishing touch but the ball bounced through her legs and City could breath a huge sigh of relief.
In a frenetic start to the contest, the home side created a gilt-edged opportunity of their own with a little over a minute on the clock. White, who scored in our last league defeat last January while she was still a Birmingham player, was sent in on goal but within seconds she was swarmed by Blues defenders and her shot was deflected behind for a corner.
The tone had well and truly been set in the thrilling opening exchanges of a game with so much at stake and both sides continued to look dangerous, and it was Man City who threatened next, as White flicked on a free-kick with a header that didn’t miss the target by much.
Then it was the Blues’ turn to go close as Kerr got up well to meet England’s pin-point cross from the left with a header from just behind the penalty spot which was powerfully directed towards the bottom right-hand corner of Roebuck’s goal. It required a spectacular save to deny the Australian the opener – and a few minutes later the home side took full advantage to strike first.
Having missed out twice previously, it was a case of third time lucky for White as she pounced on a low cross by Janine Beckie to slide the ball underneath the advancing Berger. Had it taken place in the Premier League the VAR would have had a tough offside decision to call, but the assistant referee gave her the benefit of the doubt and City were in front.
Aside from another Roebuck save to deny Kerr from a tight angle, the action quietened down as the home side seemed content to play within themselves and Chelsea patiently tried to work an opening against one of the WSL’s meanest defences. As is so often the case in this fixture, though, a moment of class is what is needed to find the breakthrough – and Ji was on hand to deliver it to get us back on level terms.
City dealt well with the initial cross from the left by Kerr, which was headed clear by Gemma Bonner ahead of Cuthbert, but the ball was controlled by Ji and it sat up nicely for the South Korean to try her luck from range. Our No.10 struck it cleanly with her right foot and it flew past the despairing dive of Roebuck. Replays showed the slightest of touches off the head of Demi Stokes, but take nothing away from Ji, who once again stepped up to the plate when her team needed her most.
The remainder of the half took place largely in Manchester City’s territory, as the Blues looked to make the most of the shift in momentum, and as those fond of a cliché would say, Hayes’s side didn’t want the half-time whistle to come.
Even so, we began the second half looking just as threatening and within 10 minutes of the restart Roebuck was called into action to make a couple of vital stops. The first denied England from a spectacular volleyed effort, as she hammered a shot at goal from a tight angle after Reiten deftly flicked the ball over an onrushing defender. Then, from the resulting corner, our No.9 had another opportunity as she reacted quickest when Eriksson and the keeper went up for a set-piece, but her shot smashed into the face of Roebuck.
For all our dominance, City retook the lead and it was a classic counter-attack by the home side. Hemp clipped a pass down the line for Stanway, taking out the sliding Bright in the process, and she fired a shot past Berger at the near post. It was a landmark goal, too, as it was the 2,000th of the WSL era.
Rocked by the concession against the run of play, the Blues defence had to step up to deal with City’s first period of sustained pressure since the first half and several players were called upon to make last-ditch blocks to keep us in the game.
How crucial those defensive interventions proved to be. Having trailed for only eight minutes, we drew level for the second time as Eriksson picked the perfect moment to score her first WSL goal of the season. It was an opportunistic effort, too, as Ingle flicked on a hopeful looking cross to the edge of the box and the skipper was quickest to react, connecting with a diving header which had too much power for Roebuck to keep it out.
Incredibly, City almost immediately had a chance to restore their advantage for a third time as Ingle’s clumsy challenge on Caroline Weir resulted in a penalty kick being awarded. Stanway stepped up to take it and she struck a clean effort that wasn’t quite in the bottom-right corner, which allowed Berger to pull off an outstanding save before Bright smashed the ball clear.
There was no chance of the action letting up and this remarkable game saw another twist with 15 minutes still to play, as the Blues went in front for the first time through a spectacular strike from England. There looked to be nothing on for our leading scorer when she received the ball from Ramona Bachmann, who had just come on as a sub, but from all of 25 yards she rifled a stunning strike into the top corner. The primal roar let out by our No.9 after her 19th goal of the campaign said it all. What a game!
Alas, the celebrations proved to be short-lived, as City responded with the equaliser just two minutes later. Hemp was the scorer, prodding in a low cross from Weir. This breathless match was all square once again, but there was still plenty of time left for a winner to be found.
Hayes looked to seize back some control in the midfield battle by introducing Maria Thorisdottir in place of Ji, but both sides continued to push forward in search of a goal which could prove decisive in the title race. England had a great chance when she found herself with just Steph Houghton between her and the goalkeeper, but the centre-back did just about enough to force her to snatch at a left-footed shot which sailed harmlessly wide.
The referee was clearly enjoying this match as much as the rest of us as she called for seven minutes of stoppage time, which was substantially increased when Roebuck went down after colliding with Eriksson while claiming a cross. The goalkeeper was unable to continue, which meant Karima Benameur was brought on for her league debut to see out the final knockings of what many would agree was the most thrilling match of the WSL era.
Finally, with 102 minutes on the clock, Rebecca Welch blew the full-time whistle. For all that had gone before, the title race remained as delicately poised as before kick-off, but with a game in hand and only one point between us and City, the Blues know our destiny is in our own hands.
Next up is the Continental League Cup final, as we take on Arsenal next Saturday for the first silverware of the women’s domestic season. That match takes place at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground and you can buy your tickets here. After that the majority of our players head off on international duty, with our next fixture at Kingsmeadow on Sunday 22 March when we host Everton in the WSL. Tickets for that game will be available here from Monday.
Manchester City (4-4-2) Roebuck (Benameur 90+9); Beckie, Houghton (c), Bonner, Stokes; Scott, Walsh, Weir, Hemp; Stanway, White (Bremer 78)
Unused subs Coombs, Toland, Park, Wullaert, Fidalgo
Scorers White 22, Stanway 60, Hemp 76
Missed penalty Stanway 70
Chelsea (4-4-2) Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson (c), Andersson; Cuthbert, Ingle, Ji (Thorsidottir 77), Reiten (Bachmann 72); England, Kerr (Spence 90+1)
Unused subs Telford, Blundell, Carter, Engman
Scorers Ji 39, Eriksson 68, England 74
Referee Rebecca Welch