A last-gasp own goal rescued a point for the Blues from this top-of-the-table clash in the Barclays Women’s Super League, extending our long unbeaten run in the competition to 27 matches.
The last two winners of the title went head to head at Meadow Park on the annual Women’s Football Weekend and there was little to separate the sides throughout 90 hard-fought minutes.
Caitlin Foord came closest to breaking the deadlock during a first half that was one for the purists, featuring little action in either penalty box as both defences were on top. Indeed, the Blues back four came into the game having conceded only once in open play in the WSL this term, although that could have become two had Ann-Katrin Berger not got the slightest of touches on Foord’s long-range effort to tip it onto the bar.
The half-time introduction of Sam Kerr sparked some life into our performance, as we were much the better side after the break. Both Bethany England and Pernille Harder spurned good opportunities when well placed inside the box – and their failure to make the Gunners pay came back to haunt us.
With four minutes remaining, Vivianne Miedema broke clear down the left-hand side and centred for Beth Mead to score what looked to be the winning goal from close range.
This is a Chelsea Women team that never knows when it is beaten, though, as our 26-game unbeaten run in the WSL would suggest. That streak would now extend to 27, although our equaliser owed plenty to good fortune.
The intent from Harder, who found half a yard of space near the right byline, was there and she attempted to whip over a cross, but the ball spooned up off the boot of the sliding Lotte Wubben-Moy and over the flat-footed Manuela Zinsberger as it sailed into the far corner.
It was a desperately unlucky moment for the Arsenal defender, but the Gunners had some good fortune of their own a few moments later when Kerr sent a lob over the keeper and only inches wide of the far corner. A game short on goalmouth action for the first 85 minutes had finally come to life. And then, just like that, it was over.
Although our six-game winning streak against Arsenal has now come to an end, there was much to admire in how we responded to going a goal behind so late in the day, and we move three points behind leaders Manchester United with a game in hand.
This was a fitting fixture to be held on Women’s Football Weekend, which also featured Manchester and Midlands derby matches in the WSL, and we came into the game in good form after a thumping 4-0 triumph over Everton at Kingsmeadow last Sunday. Unsurprisingly, Hayes opted to name an unchanged starting XI.
That meant Berger kept goal behind a back four of Maren Mjelde, Millie Bright, Magda Eriksson – who signed a new three-year contract last week – and Jonna Andersson. Sophie Ingle and Melanie Leupolz provided the midfield base to build on, as Harder, Ji So-Yun and Erin Cuthbert supported lone strike England.
In our previous meeting with Arsenal this season, a 4-1 win in the Continental League Cup group stage, there were four goals in the opening quarter of an hour. This game at Meadow Park was, however, more in tune with what you’d expect from two evenly matched title challengers as both sides gave very little away during the opening exchanges.
By the 20-minute mark there had been little by way of goalmouth action – neither goalkeeper was tested, as the Blues missed the target with both our attempts – and the foul count comfortably exceeded the number of shots.
Both Berger and her opposite number Zinsberger showed their confidence when leaving their area, snuffing out possible chances for Miedema and Harder in quick succession, as both sides looked to exploit any space left in behind. That, however, was proving to be in short supply; the stat which highlighted the two clubs having the best defensive records in this season’s WSL was clearly winning out over the one which showed we were the highest-scoring teams.
Clearly, it was going to take a mistake or something special for the breakthrough to come, and Arsenal very nearly provided it late in the first half thanks to a little of both. Ingle’s loose pass went straight to Foord, who struck a powerful effort from 25 yards out that Berger tipped onto the crossbar with a magnificent save. Fortunately, the Blues keeper was quick to get off the deck, as the ball bounced off the bar for a second time and back into the danger zone, requiring evasive action from Berger to punch it away to safety ahead of the onrushing Mead.
The half-time break came at a good time for the Blues and Hayes used it as an opportunity to change things up. Kerr was brought on in place of Leupolz at the ground where she scored her first goal in English football back in January and the Australian was deployed on the left-hand side as part of a midfield reshuffle that saw Ji drop back and Harder move into a more central role behind England, although it quickly became apparent these positions would be interchangeable.
More than any adjustment to the personnel, however, was the intent shown by the Blues in virtually every department. Now we were engaging the Arsenal defence higher up the field and giving each Gunner on the pitch less time and space to play the ball. Within five minutes of the restart there was a fierce drive by England just off target and a Cuthbert volley that needed a last-ditch block to keep it out.
The pressure was beginning to tell, and on the hour mark we really should have made Arsenal pay for a loose pass out from the back. Cuthbert was onto it like a flash and immediately teed up the unmarked England inside the box. Although it was on her left foot, you’d back our No9 to hit the target nine times out of 10, but she sent a wild strike high and wide of the target. It was a big let off for the home side.
That was the last action of England’s game, bringing an end to her five-match run of scoring against the Gunners. On came Guro Reiten in her place, which meant Kerr moved up top, and it was followed by another gilt-edged opportunity for the Blues. This time it fell to Harder, who picked up the ball on the penalty spot after Ji’s teasing cross was only half cleared, but her low strike was brilliantly blocked by Williamson.
Arsenal briefly forced us back as the clock ticked past 80, earning a string of corners that kept our defence on their toes to keep the Gunners out. However, with five minutes remaining they produced a sucker-punch on the counter to take the lead. Miedema was the provider, breaking away down the left and sending the ball into the six-yard box for Mead to fire home.
Hayes made two changes before the restart, bringing on Jessie Fleming and Niamh Charles in place of Ji and Cuthbert, and remarkably we found ourselves level in the last minute of normal time thanks to a hugely fortuitous own goal.
All credit to Harder, who drove at the Arsenal defence from the right of our attack and tried to send a cross into the box. Wubben-Moy threw herself at the ball and her outstretched boot looped it up and over Zinsberger, bouncing into the far corner of the net. A game that had taken so long to get going now had two goals in the final four minutes – and, really, it should have been three before the full-time whistle was blown.
A rattled Arsenal defence was caught out again, as Kerr broke free and sent a lob over the Arsenal keeper. Time seemed to stand still as it came down and bounced agonisingly wide of the far post. What a turnaround that would have been.
Still, let us not forget how tough this Arsenal side is to beat on their own patch. Their only two defeats in the last 33 home league games have both come against Chelsea. It could have been three but a share of the spoils was probably the fairest result, leaving the WSL title race tantalisingly poised.
The Blues are next in action on Wednesday night, when we look to maintain our 100 per cent record in the Continental League Cup with a trip to Championship side London City Lionesses in our final group-stage fixture. Our next WSL match is another London derby, as we host West Ham United on Sunday 6 December.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson (c), Andersson; Leupolz (Kerr h/t), Ingle; Harder, Ji (Fleming 87), Cuthbert (Charles 87); England (Reiten 65)Unused subs Telford, Thorisdottir, Carter, C FlemingScorer Wubben-Moy own goal 90Booked Ji 63
Arsenal (4-3-3) Zinsberger; Maier, Williamson, Wubben-Moy, McCabe; Walti, Little (c), Roord; Mead, Miedema, FoordUnused subs Williams, Mace, Evans, Gut, Pearse, Garrard, Van de DonkScorer Mead 86Booked Maier 32
Referee Kirsty Dowle
Crowd Behind closed doors