Fran Kirby’s early header proved to be the difference in the battle of the Blues, as a dominant performance in the Midlands was rewarded with three points.
Unlike our last WSL game, which was a 9-0 victory over Bristol City at Kingsmeadow, this was, despite our clear superiority throughout, a nail-biter that went right down to the wire.
We looked to be in for a comfortable afternoon at a sodden Damson Park when Kirby was left unmarked in the box to head home a pin-point free-kick from the right boot of Erin Cuthbert.
In truth, it would have been a handsome win had our finishing been as sharp as the usual high standards set by the players – not to mention an incorrect offside call denying Bethany England a goal midway through the second half.
Guro Reiten rattled a thumping shot against the crossbar and England was denied by a goal-line clearance and a fine save by goalkeeper Hannah Hampton, as we just couldn’t put the game to bed.
There was little attacking threat offered in response by Birmingham, as they failed to test their former keeper Ann-Katrin Berger, but the Blues No30 was relieved to see a late headed chance drift just past the far post.
We’d won this fixture last season 6-0 and, had we taken our chances, the scoreline this time around might not have been too far from that.
As it is, we made it seven points from our first three Barclays Women’s Super League fixtures and produced the desired response to last weekend’s shock FA Cup exit. What’s more, our unbeaten run away from home in the English top flight now stretches to 30 matches, going back to May 2017.
It’s a pair of home fixtures next for Emma Hayes and her side, however, as we welcome Arsenal and Manchester City to Kingsmeadow over the course of the next seven days.
There were four changes to the starting line-up that lost to Everton last time out, as Magdalena Eriksson, Melanie Leupolz, Reiten and England returned to the team in place of Jess Carter, Ji So-Yun, newly crowned UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Pernille Harder and Sam Kerr.
That meant our usual back four of Maren Mjelde, Millie Bright, Eriksson and Jonna Andersson were reunited in front of goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger. In midfield, the selection of Sophie Ingle and Leupolz afforded Cuthbert, Kirby and Reiten plenty of freedom to get up and support England.
We hadn’t even played 10 minutes when two of the attacking quartet linked up to put the Blues in front, and goals don’t come any simpler than this. Cuthbert sent in a peach of a free-kick from the left-hand edge of the box and Kirby – one of the shortest players on the pitch – was allowed a free header that she looped in at the near post to give us the perfect start.
In the build-up to the game, Hayes said she expected her side’s collective defensive effort to be greater and it was clear that message had been taken on board. The speed at which the players closed down their Birmingham counterparts from front to back meant the home side struggled to get out of their own half and though there wasn’t an abundance of chances being created, we looked to be in total control during the early exchanges.
Jamie Lee-Napier, on loan to Birmingham and playing against her parent club, was at least showing a little bite, although one challenge on Cuthbert, her fellow Scot, was a little over exuberant. The subsequent free-kick almost led to our second, as Eriksson had a free header at the back post but she couldn’t direct it into the path of Bright in the centre.
Despite our dominance in open play, set-piece situations continued to look our most likely route to goal – perhaps not entirely surprising, considering the significant rainfall in Birmingham over the previous 48 hours. This time it was Ingle, from an in-swinging Reiten corner, who failed to make the most of a presentable headed opportunity.
The Norwegian had been one of our main creative threats throughout the first half, but on the stroke of the interval she almost doubled our advantage. Leupolz couldn’t quite get on the end of an inviting cross from the left, but the headed clearance only went as far as Reiten on the edge of the box and she unleashed a thunderous strike that rattled the crossbar. Had it been an inch or so lower, we’d have had an early Goal of the Season contender on her hands.
Neither manager made any changes at the break and the second half began in much the same manner as the previous 45 minutes – Chelsea enjoying all of the possession and Birmingham defending the edge of their own penalty box, hoping to land a sucker punch on the counter.
It might not have been pretty on the eye, but the tactics certainly caused some degree of frustration among the Blues front line, as attacks were continually thwarted before we could even test the keeper. A sign of how things were going came just before the hour mark, when Ingle lined up a shot from all of 35 yards that flew off target. Kirby then forced a fine save from Hampton a little closer to goal.
Hayes had seen enough and she was soon sending for reinforcements. On came Niamh Charles, Ji and Kerr, replacing Cuthbert, Ingle and Reiten. They brought the sunshine with them, too, as for the first time all weekend there was brightness in Birmingham. That news was welcomed just up the road at Edgbaston, where cricket’s T20 Blast finals day was taking place at the second time of asking.
A few minutes later, we looked to have scored the goal that would finally take the game away from the home side, as Leupolz looped a delightful cross into the danger zone and England expertly powered a header past the keeper. Alas, the assistant referee’s flag went up for offside, but replays showed our No9 was clearly onside, although Kerr, who wasn’t challenging for the ball, was just beyond the last defender.
There was an even bigger let off for Birmingham from our next attack, as Hampton, struggling with the sun, spilled a speculative strike from Ji. The ball bounced in the six-yard box and it looked the simplest of tasks for England to turn home the rebound, yet somehow defender Harriet Scott got back to keep it out.
Another Blues change was made, with Harder coming on in place of goalscorer Kirby. It was very nearly followed by the unlikeliest of equalisers, as Scott looked to go one better than her defensive exploits with a dangerous cross that was headed inches wide of the far post. At the other end, we still couldn’t put the game to bed; England, for a third time, saw what looked to be a certain goal taken from her, this time after another sublime stop by Hampton.
It mattered not, however, as the referee called time on a game that had provided more thrills than perhaps would have been anticipated when Kirby headed the Blues ahead after only nine minutes. The three points were in the bag and focus can now turn to a huge week on the horizon.
Indeed, they don’t come much bigger than our next two assignments. Arsenal visit Kingsmeadow on Wednesday night for the first game of the Continental League Cup group stage, in a repeat of last season’s final, and then Manchester City are next up in the league as we host the side we pipped to the 2019/20 WSL title by the barest of margins.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson (c), Andersson; Ingle (Ji 65), Leupolz; Cuthbert (Charles 65), Kirby (Harder 77), Reiten (Kerr 65); England
Unused subs Telford, Thorisdottir, Blundell, Carter, J Fleming
Scorer Kirby 9
Birmingham City (4-3-3) Hampton; Scott, Brougham, Corsie, Holloway; Whipp, Murray (c), Napier (Kelly 68); Mayling, Walker (Toussaint 89), Scofield (Green 66)
Unused subs Lawley, McCarron, Grant
Referee Abigail Byrne
Crowd Behind closed doors