Chelsea Women have retained the Women’s Super League title, with two goals from Fran Kirby and one apiece for Melanie Leupolz, Sam Kerr and Erin Cuthbert giving us a comfortable win over Reading on the final day of the season.
The Blues knew that three points at Kingsmeadow would be enough to see us crowned champions of England for the fourth time – each of which has come in the last six years – and the result never looked in doubt from the moment Leupolz fired us into the lead inside the first two minutes.
The former Bayern Munich midfielder was found by another Jess Carter set-piece routine that was straight off the training ground, and although Grace Moloney perhaps should have done better to keep it out, the shot from Leupolz was crisply struck on the half-volley.
The WSL’s meanest defence rarely looked under any threat from a side that battled gamely without ever really testing Ann-Katrin Berger, whose 12th clean sheet of the season secured the Golden Glove award, and before the half was out we had doubled our advantage.
It was the familiar combination of Kerr and Kirby linking up once again, as a one-two finished with the latter brilliantly side-footing past Moloney to put us 2-0 up and with one hand on the trophy.
Then, just before the hour mark, Kerr teed up Kirby for the second time in the match to lash home a left-footed strike that flew into the top corner. The celebrations that followed indicated the players knew there was no coming back from that for Reading.
There was a role reversal for our fourth, as our No14 clipped a delightful ball over the top for Kerr to meet on the volley and move her on to 21 goals for the season, which was more than enough to secure her the WSL Golden Boot award in her first full campaign with the club.
We soon found ourselves five to the good, as substitute Erin Cuthbert turned home the rebound after a fine save by Moloney, and it had turned into a rout. As has been the case all season, there has been no stopping this Chelsea side.
The Blues now move on to four titles, putting us ahead of Arsenal as the most successful side in the WSL era, which began a decade ago, and Emma Hayes’s eight-year spell at the helm has yielded 10 pieces of silverware.
And with the Community Shield and Continental League Cup also already in the bag this term, our focus can now turn to next Sunday, when we have a chance to make it four trophies on what is undoubtedly the biggest day in the club’s history. Barcelona await in Gothenburg as we compete in the Champions League final for the first time. What a night that promises to be…
Hayes went with the same team that started the historic win over Bayern Munich in last Sunday's Champions League semi-final second leg, but that meant a much-changed line-up from the midweek victory at Spurs. Jonna Andersson, Cuthbert, Drew Spence, Guro Reiten and Bethany England were the five players who dropped to the bench, as Carter, Leupolz, Ji So-Yun, Kirby and Pernille Harder were restored to the side.
Berger started in goal, behind a back four of Carter, Millie Bright, Magdalena Eriksson and Niamh Charles. Ji So-Yun, Sophie Ingle and Leupolz made up a midfield trio that offers a little bit of everything, while Kirby, Pernille Harder and Kerr provided the chief goal threat.
Prior to kick-off, there was a lovely moment when Hayes presented Reading midfielder Fara Williams with a signed Chelsea shirt that had the No4 on the back, which is the number Williams wore during her time at the club she supports in the late-1990s and early-2000s. This is the final game of an illustrious career in which she has won more caps for England than any other player, male or female.
Then, once the action got underway, all sentimentality went straight out of the window, as the Blues ruthlessly took the lead with less than 90 seconds on the clock. We won a corner from our first attack of the game and Carter’s low set-piece was whipped to the edge of the box for Leupolz to meet first time with a crisp right-footed shot that squirmed underneath Moloney’s despairing dive. If any of the players did have any final-day nerves they would have swiftly given way to the relief of such an early goal.
Reading looked to immediately hit back from a set-piece of their own, only for a brilliant block to keep out Rowe’s long-range strike, before the game fell into a pattern that would play out for much of the half. The Blues were controlling possession as the visitors sat in and looked to deny us any space to work with in behind. Such a ploy is easier in theory than in practice, however, and a one-touch passing move ended with Kerr being played in by Ji, only for ex-Chelsea defender Deanna Cooper to slide in to make the last-ditch tackle to knock the ball behind.
Even though they had nothing to play for other than pride, this Reading side under Kelly Chambers was never going to rock up at Kingsmeadow with one foot on the beach and another defender, this time Leine, was the next to throw her body on the line to deny Chelsea a certain goal. Kirby was the player to miss out, having timed her run perfectly to meet a cross on the volley.
The Royals were enjoying occasional forays into our territory, albeit without really testing Berger, although the clearances from our defence had a slightly rushed feel to them. But the bulk of the action was taking place in the opposite half of the field and just before half-time we doubled our lead with a brilliant goal.
Ji started the move with an incisive pass into Kirby, who in turn slid the ball through to Kerr in the inside-right channel and continued her run to take the return pass and, without missing a stride, side-footed the ball past Moloney. If any goal epitomised the, at times almost telepathic, link-up between the two this season, this was it. Between them, they have accrued 50 goal involvements this term in the WSL. Only the top three teams in the league have netted more than a half century of goals overall.
We could have had a third on the stroke of half-time, as another slick passing move cut through the Reading rearguard. This time it was Ingle released into space, but her cross arrived at an awkward height for Harder and the chance bounced off her thigh and straight into the hands of the grateful Moloney, who must have been fearing the worst.
The half-time whistle signalled another step closer to our fourth WSL title. We’ve conceded only twice in a game three times in the league this term, which didn’t bode well for the Manchester City players and staff hoping to stage a last-day turnaround to get their hands on the trophy.
Reading, to their credit, came out after the break with renewed vigour and they very nearly got back into the game inside the first five minutes of the second half, as Williams looked to catch out Berger at her near post and it took a fine save from the Blues keeper. Just as importantly, with several players anticipating any spillage, she managed to cling on to the ball.
A few minutes later, it was all over bar the shouting, as the same combination that had provided our second linked up again to make it 3-0. A long ball up field was chased by Kerr, who waited for the cavalry to arrive and laid the ball off for Kirby. One touch to beat the defender, the second to hammer home a left-footed strike – never in doubt. It was her 16th WSL goal of the season, a tally bettered by only two players, and six of them have come against Reading. Her old club must be sick of the sight of her.
Barring an unprecedented collapse, the game was as good as finished and Hayes made the most of the three-goal cushion to make a raft of changes. Andersson, Cuthbert and Reiten were introduced in place of Charles, Harder and Ji; such quality in reserve another pertinent reminder of why we have remained so consistent across all four competitions this term.
Jessie Fleming and Hannah Blundell joined them on the pitch soon after, in place of Carter and Leupolz, but it was the story of the game, and indeed the season, two minutes later as we went 4-0 up. This time it was Kirby lifting the ball over the top of Kerr, who showed great athleticism to meet the pass on the volley at full stretch. Despite the best efforts of Moloney, the shot trickled into the net and the Australian had her 21st goal of a sensational first full season as a Blue.
There was no stopping us now, as Reading’s resolve was well and truly broken, and although the Reading keeper managed to keep out Kerr’s initial header from a corner kick, the rebound dropped to Cuthbert and she managed to smuggle it over the line for our fifth.
We’d won our first WSL title in 2015 with a 4-0 win at our old Wheatsheaf Park home against Sunderland, but our Spring Series triumph in 2017 and the next title in 2018 were both clinched with away victories. With last season’s championship decided on a points-per-game basis following the early curtailment due to the pandemic, this was our first title to be confirmed at our KT1 home. The only thing missing was the supporters, who would have dearly loved to have been a part of another historic day for the club – although, as we soon discovered, plenty turned up outside the ground to serenade the players during the post-match celebrations.
Now, with a third piece of silverware in the bag this season - and the WSL title retained for the first time - attention can turn to our next game, when we can make it four. It isn’t just any old trophy, though – this is the biggie, the only one missing from our collection. The Blues travel to Gothenburg in Sweden to take on Barcelona next Sunday, when a new name will be written on the Women’s Champions League trophy.
Chelsea (4-3-2-1) Berger; Charles (Andersson 58), Bright, Eriksson (c), Carter (Blundell 69); Leupolz (Fleming 69), Ingle, Ji (Reiten 58); Kirby, Harder (Cuthbert 58); Kerr
Unused subs Musovic, Telford, England, Spence
Scorers Leupolz 2, Kirby 43, 57, Kerr 70, Cuthbert 76
Reading (3-5-2) Moloney; Leine, Bartrip, Cooper; Harding, Williams (c), James, Rowe, Roberts (Eikeland 79); Harries (Chaplen h/t), Carter
Unused subs Nayler, Jeon, Flores, Childerhouse
Referee Stacey Pearson