The Blues have set a new Barclays Women’s Super League record for the longest unbeaten run, as a dominant display against Aston Villa was rewarded with a handsome victory that sends us back to the top of the table.
History was in our hands on a rainy night in the Midlands, as we prepared for our first-ever league meeting with the Villans knowing that avoiding defeat would allow us to extend our unbeaten run in the WSL to 32 matches, surpassing the record we shared with Manchester City. Indeed, it was exactly two years to the day since we last lost a game in the competition.
The record never looked in doubt from the moment Sam Kerr got us off to a flier, as our Australian forward smashed home a half-volley after only three minutes. It was her eighth league goal of the campaign, drawing level with Fran Kirby as our leading scorer in the WSL.
We were in complete control throughout, as Villa struggled to get out of their own half, and a second goal duly arrived 10 minutes before half-time. This time Kerr was the creator, floating over a cross that Bethany England met with a firm header to leave goalkeeper Lisa Weiss with no chance.
It was much the same story after the break, as we continued to dominate, and the game was over as a meaningful contest when we netted two goals in as many minutes midway through the second half.
The first came from Pernille Harder, who drilled home a precise shot from the edge of the box after a short-corner routine was worked to her. Another set-piece was Villa’s undoing a few moments later, as Guro Reiten whipped in a free-kick that was begging for a touch at the back stick. Captain Magdalena Eriksson duly obliged.
Four goals was the least our performance deserved, but ultimately it was more than enough on what was a historic night for Emma Hayes and her squad, who will look to continue their unbeaten record when we host Spurs on Sunday.
Far more pleasing to the manager, however, was the return to the top of the WSL standings, ahead of Manchester United on goal difference and with a game in hand, as we look to retain our title.
A week had passed since our last outing, which was a thrilling Continental League Cup quarter-final win over Manchester City, as our match with Bristol City at the weekend was postponed due to the snow in the South-West. Even so, with a busy schedule over the next fortnight, Hayes opted to rotate, making five changes to the starting line-up.
Carly Telford, Niamh Charles, Sophie Ingle, Jessie Fleming and Reiten were all brought in, the latter quartet having impressed against City as substitutes, replacing Ann-Katrin Berger, Jonna Andersson, Ji So-Yun, Melanie Leupolz and Erin Cuthbert.
That meant Telford kept goal behind a back four of Maren Mjelde, Millie Bright, Eriksson and Charles, who showed her versatility by filling in at left-back. Fleming and Ingle were nominally the deepest of our midfielders, as Kerr, Harder, Reiten and England lined up as a fluid front four. There was also a couple of new names on the subs bench, as Academy duo Jorja Fox and Aggie Beever-Jones were included in a matchday squad for the first time.
The Blues made the perfect start, as we took the lead after only three minutes with virtually our first attack. Charles was heavily involved, getting forward from left-back and floating in a cross that was only half cleared by the Aston Villa defence, allowing Kerr to rifle home a thunderous left-footed strike on the half-volley.
Most of the play was coming down the Chelsea left during the early exchanges, as Charles was enjoying her new position and playing with all the confidence of a player who had scored a wonder goal on her last appearance. At times it seemed as though the ball was constantly in the Villa half of the pitch, as we kept them pegged back.
We came close to doubling our lead with another spectacular strike, this time from England, who didn’t need a second invitation to try her luck from the edge of the box with a curling left-footed effort that comfortably beat the keeper, only for the ball to bounce off the top of the crossbar. It would have been some goal.
The fluidity of Chelsea’s attacking quartet and the slickness of our passing was making life very uncomfortable for the home side, who were content to get bodies behind the ball and leave as little space as possible in behind, with former Blues centre-half Anita Asante doing a good job of keeping them organised. In fairness, their ploy was largely working; Kerr’s strike was our only effort on target in the opening 30 minutes, despite our possession being up around 75 per cent.
Patience was the order of the day, and it paid off as we added a second in the 35th minute. Having netted the first, Kerr turned provider with an absolute peach of a cross from the right-hand side, which England met with a powerful header to beat Weiss and double our advantage.
When the half-time whistle blew, it must have come as a relief to the home side, who hadn’t so much as attempted a shot at Telford’s goal. It came as little surprise to see their new interim manager Marcus Bignot, who had previously had a long association with Birmingham City, make a change for the second half, as Caro Siems came on for Shania Hayles.
While Villa showed a bit more attacking intent after the restart, the game largely continued to follow the same pattern as the opening period, with the Blues dominating the ball and keeping the home side at arm’s length. The first 15 minutes of the second half passed without either side attempting a shot, a run that was broken soon after by Ingle, who fired a powerful strike just wide of the target.
The home side wouldn’t be so lucky the next time we tried our luck from outside the box, as a short corner was taken on by Reiten and she laid the ball into the path of Harder to drill home a daisy-cutter which was precision personified, as it just evaded the keeper’s full-stretch dive to nestle into the bottom corner.
In the blink of an eye, three had become four, and Reiten had another assist to her name. This time it was a curling free-kick from the right that evaded a sea of bodies in the penalty box, allowing Eriksson to come round the back to steer it home with a tidy finish.
The Villans finally registered a shot, with the game well and truly out of their reach, as Iwabuchi forced Telford into an excellent save with her legs, and then came another proud moment for Hayes on a night when her side made history.
Having brought on one Academy graduate, Drew Spence, for her 201st appearance, she then handed debuts to another duo who have come up through the ranks. It was a moment neither Fox or Beever-Jones would ever forget, as they were introduced in place of Charles and Reiten.
We almost had a fifth late on, as Kerr pounced on a sloppy pass and smashed a shot that took a deflection and only narrowly missed the target, but in the end it was immaterial. Our incredible run of unbeaten matches in the WSL had reached 32, a mark never before achieved in the competition, and we were back at the top of the table.
The Blues are next in action on Sunday, when we host Tottenham Hotspur at Kingsmeadow. The game kicks off at 12.30pm and fans in the UK can tune in via the BBC Red Button.
Aston Villa (4-3-3) Weiss; Ale, N'Dow, Asante, Haigh; Haywood (Follis 76), Ewers (c) (West 63), Hayles; Iwabuchi, Larsen, Hanssen (Silva 84)
Unused subs Rogers, Hutton, Syme, McLoughlin
Booked Hanssen 45
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Telford; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson (c), Charles (Fox 84); Ingle, Fleming; Kerr, Harder (Spence 73), Reiten (Beever-Jones 84); England
Unused subs Berger, Leupolz, Ji, Kirby, Andersson
Scorers Kerr 3, England 35, Harder 68, Eriksson 70
Booked Bright 71
Referee Helen Conley