A devastating performance by Fran Kirby helped the Blues start 2021 in style at the Madejski Stadium, as Super Fran netted four times in a thumping win over her former club.
With no other Barclays Women’s Super League games taking place this weekend, all eyes were on this fixture and we sent out a message to the rest of the league, thanks in no small part to the finishing clinic put on by our No14.
She completed a perfect hat-trick inside an opening 45 minutes that were dominated by Emma Hayes’s side, as we asserted ourselves upon the home side from the first whistle. We took the lead after 16 minutes when Kirby ran on to a flick-on from Sam Kerr and confidently rounded Grace Moloney, before slotting the ball into the empty net.
That was the right-footed effort in the bank, and soon it was her left foot doing the damage. In truth, Reading were masters of their own downfall, as they presented the ball to the England international on the edge of the box and she raced away to beat Moloney for the second time.
That became three with the last touch of the opening half and this was perhaps the pick of the bunch, as a well thought out set-piece routine saw Erin Cuthbert clip one to the back stick for Kerr to send a first-time cross into the danger zone, which Kirby expertly headed home.
She scored a fourth just seven minutes into the second half and once again the damage was done with her head, this time following a clipped corner kick to the near post by Guro Reiten. Reading simply did not know what had hit them. The four goals took Kirby to seven this term in the WSL and nine in all competitions, moving ahead of Sam Kerr as our top scorer.
A brilliant finish late on from substitute Ji So-Yun capped a fine afternoon for the Blues, as we made it five wins on the spin and extended our long unbeaten record in the WSL to 30 matches, which is just one shy of the league record held by Manchester City.
The victory also moves us ahead of Arsenal into second and three points behind leaders Manchester United, with a game in hand on both sides.
With the Red Devils our next opponents, at Kingsmeadow next Sunday, all eyes will once again be fixed upon last season’s champions as we look to draw level at the top of the standings.
The last time we were in action in the WSL was on 13 December, when we won at Brighton, and coincidentally the Seagulls were also the last team Reading faced prior to the winter break. The Blues made four changes from our most recent outing in the league. Magda Eriksson, Ji and Pernille Harder were absent from the starting line-up and named among the substitutes when the team sheets were handed in and then, shortly before kick-off, it was announced that Maren Mjelde was also missing. The players to come in were Hannah Blundell, Sophie Ingle, Niamh Charles and Reiten.
As she has done late on in a couple of games this term, Ingle was deployed at centre-half, partnering Millie Bright and being flanked by Blundell and Jonna Andersson ahead of Ann-Katrin Berger in goal. In midfield, Cuthbert dropped a little deeper than usual to link up with Melanie Leupolz, with Charles, Kirby and Reiten joining Kerr in attack.
The Blues’ intentions were perfectly clear from the first whistle, as we looked to take advantage of any festive hangover that may have been lingering for the home side by pressing high up the pitch and looking to pinch the ball back in dangerous areas.
The Royals are usually experts at hassling the opposition themselves, but on this occasion their defence – which included Deanna Cooper, who left us last summer – and midfield were looking uneasy in possession and, as a result, we kept them squeezed back in their own territory. In turn, that allowed our attackers to pick the ball up in the areas where they could do damage – and soon that would come to the fore in devastating fashion.
A hooked pass forward by Ingle was flicked on by Kerr, who did superbly to get up above her marker, and Kirby was in on goal. A little shimmy from our No14 took her past Moloney and left her with the simple task of sending a firm side-footed finish straight down the middle of the empty net.
Little did we know at the time, but this was the start of the Fran Kirby show. She almost made it 2-0 with a spectacular strike that came back off the woodwork, but Reading failed to heed the warning as just a few seconds later Emma Mitchell presented the ball to her with a misplaced pass. Super Fran was onto it like a flash, holding off the Reading defender as she ran into the penalty box and then sending a reverse finish with her left foot past the keeper and into the far corner. It was a wonderfully opportunistic effort by the England international, but she simply rose to her feet and nonchalantly raised both arms in celebration, as if it to say, ‘What else did you expect?’
Reading may have been offering little in the attacking third, but they briefly gave Berger cause for concern when Natasha Harding’s half-volleyed lob, which may have been speculative in the extreme, landed only a foot or so wide of the target. Normal service looked to have resumed when Kerr surged away from the home defence and tried to square to Kirby for a tap-in that would secure a first-half hat-trick, only for a defender to nip in and boot it clear.
Kirby was not to be denied, though, and she brought up her treble with the final touch of the half. Cuthbert’s free-kick to the back stick was perfectly weighted for Kerr to run on to it and cross for Kirby to direct a header past Moloney. It was a beautifully crafted goal, finished superbly by a player enjoying a scintillating start to 2021.
A half-time change by Reading, bringing on Bruton for Harries, did little to stem the flow. Reiten should have made it 4-0 when she headed wide from a pin-point cross by Kirby, but we didn’t have to wait long for the fourth – and, once again, it was our No14 who stuck it in the back of the net. This time it was a role reversal from a few minutes earlier, as it was a Reiten cross, from a corner kick, that Kirby met at the front post with a header that looped into the far corner.
With the points now well and truly safe, Hayes opted to make a triple substitution just past the hour mark. On came Ji, Jessie Fleming and Bethany England, in place of Cuthbert, Reiten and Kerr. That was followed by a double change 10 minutes later, as Eriksson and Harder replaced Andersson and Charles. One can only imagine what the beleaguered Reading rearguard must have been thinking as this collection of international stars came onto the pitch one by one.
To their credit, Kelly Chambers’s side responded well and briefly produced their best spell of the match, albeit without testing Berger, and the Blues were soon back on top. Harder should have found the back of the net within 10 minutes of her arrival, as she showed Mitchell a clean pair of heels to go in on goal, but Moloney stayed big just about long enough to keep out her clipped finish.
Instead, it was left to another substitute to put the icing on the cake. Reading failed to deal with a Blundell cross into the box and the ball dropped to Ji, who left one defender on the deck with a deft touch with her right foot, which was followed by a thumping left-footed strike that took a slight deflection to leave the keeper with no chance.
It was a perfect ending to what had been a quite brilliant display at the start of what Hayes and her players hope is another incredible year for Chelsea Women.
The Blues were due to be in action again this midweek with a trip to Manchester City in the Continental League Cup, but that game has been postponed following a number of their first-team squad testing positive for Covid-19. Instead, our next fixture is another league match on Sunday, when we host leaders Manchester United at Kingsmeadow.
Reading (4-4-2) Moloney; Leine, Cooper, Mitchell (Carter 80), Woodham (Bartrip 74); Williams (Rowe 59), James, Fishlock, Eikeland; Harding (c), Harries (Bruton h/t)
Unused subs Nayler, Skeels, Roberts
Booked Williams 45+1, Moloney 45+2
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Berger; Blundell, Bright (c), Ingle, Andersson (Eriksson 71); Cuthbert (Ji 62), Leupolz; Charles (Harder 71), Kirby, Reiten (J Fleming 62); Kerr (England 62)
Unused subs Telford
Scorers Kirby 16, 23, 45+2, 53, Ji 86
Referee Abigail Byrne