A first-half header from Sam Kerr proved to be the difference between the Blues and the Seagulls, as we battled to a narrow victory that keeps us up there in the race for the Barclays Women’s Super League title.
This was a game of few clear-cut chances, as is often the case against a miserly Brighton defence in front of their home fans, so Emma Hayes would have been particularly pleased that her side went ahead with their meaningful attack of the match.
Once again the scorer was Kerr, a week on from her hat-trick against West Ham United, and this was a goal that showed off her aerial ability. Pernille Harder was involved in the build-up, before hitting the byline and whipping in a peach of a cross that our No20 met with a glancing header across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
In truth, the first half offered little else of note, as it was largely about the Blues’ ability to control the play, and we kept the home side at arm’s length and limited them to absolutely nothing in the attacking third.
Brighton almost undid our hard work within 60 seconds of the restart, though, as they struck the crossbar with a speculative effort from distance. But then normal service resumed, as we dictated large passages of play and gave the Seagulls nothing more than scraps to feed off.
There were half chances, as Erin Cuthbert, Kerr and Guro Reiten called Cecilie Fiskerstrand into action during the second half, but ultimately this was a showcase of our ability to grind out a victory, which will bode well for what promises to be a thrilling WSL title race.
Not only did Brighton fail to score, they also didn’t test Ann-Katrin Berger in the Chelsea goal, for which a defence that has allowed a league low of five goals this term deserves plenty of credit. Our unbeaten run in the league now stretches to 29 games and the confidence is there for everyone to see.
After beating Benfica 5-0 in midweek, and with the second leg of that tie to come on Wednesday night, Hayes made three changes to her starting line-up. Out went Sophie Ingle, Reiten and Bethany England, to be replaced by Melanie Leupolz, Cuthbert and Kerr.
That gave us plenty of attacking options on the pitch, as Kerr led the line with support coming from the trio of Fran Kirby – who became the club’s all-time leading scorer in midweek – Harder and Cuthbert. In midfield, Ji So-Yun and Leupolz were given a controlling brief, while Hayes knew exactly what she’d be getting from a back four of Maren Mjelde, Millie Bright, Magda Eriksson and Jonna Andersson in front of keeper Berger.
For the second weekend running we were playing in front of a crowd, as Brighton were able to allow a limited number of supporters into the People’s Pension Stadium for this game, and the home fans were certainly making themselves heard in the early stages as they urged their players on in the pouring rain.
Patience was clearly going to be required against a side as well drilled as Brighton, who are coached by the former England manager Hope Powell. The closest we came to breaking the deadlock in the first 15 minutes was a looping shot from Cuthbert that was awkwardly fielded by Fiskerstrand, whose attempt to catch the ball was hampered by the crossbar and she very nearly spilled it at the feet of Kirby, who was ready to pounce upon any mistake.
It was very much one-way traffic, with Brighton clearly happy to play on the counter, but our first incisive move of the match led to a deserved breakthrough in the 21st minute. Harder drifted out to the left-hand side, where she was found by Andersson with a yard of space in which to work. The Dane, recently crowned Women’s Footballer of the Year by the Guardian newspaper, certainly made the most of it, as she whipped over a cross that was flicked across the keeper and into the far corner by Kerr, taking the Australian’s tally for the WSL season to seven.
The remainder of the rest half was all about control, as we kept the ball comfortably for the most part and while we created very few clear-cut chances of our own, Berger was not called upon to make a save. At the other end, Fiskerstrand had to make a smart stop to keep one out from Harder 10 minutes before the interval, but otherwise it was largely an uneventful conclusion to the first act of this afternoon’s contest.
Brighton boss Powell looked to add a touch more steel to her side’s defence by introducing Danique Kerkdijk, but it was clear her half-time team talk was the most important change, as within 60 seconds of the restart her side came closer to scoring than they had at any stage of the previous 45 minutes.
Inessa Kaagman fired a speculative shot at goal from 25 yards that had Berger grasping at thin air. Thankfully, the strike was just a few inches too high, as it cannoned against the crossbar and bounced away to safety. Hayes looked livid on the sidelines, as a sloppy start to the half almost undid her side’s good work before the break.
Cuthbert forced a good save from the Brighton keeper a few minutes later, as that early scare proved to be a wake-up call for the Blues and we took control of proceedings once again. Fiskerstrand was called into action again by Kerr, this time with the most audacious effort from the halfway line, which the keeper gratefully claimed in her arms when she could have been left red faced.
As the game approached the final quarter, Hayes introduced some fresh legs in the shape of Ingle and Reiten, who came on in place of Ji and Cuthbert, both of whom had got through some serious yards. Brighton brought on Danielle Bowman soon after and the midfielder is not only a former Blue but also a fan of the club.
There was no let up from either side, as the game began to get a lot scrappier – which, of course, was exactly what the home side wanted. Another Chelsea change followed, as England came on for her 100th appearance for the club. She was well placed for a dream introduction when Reiten’s speculative strike from a tight angle was palmed away by Fiskerstrand, but the Brighton keeper managed to knock it into an area of relative safety instead of into the path of our No9.
Then it was all about closing the game out, which our defence and midfield did expertly. No scares, few frantic clearances and, crucially, no threat to Berger’s goal. It was as comfortable a 1-0 victory was one could hope for, and a win that takes us back to within three points of leaders Manchester United, with a game in hand.
Next up for the Blues is a pair of home games to close out 2020, both of which you can see live via Chelsea channels. Benfica visit Kingsmeadow for the second leg of our Champions League last-16 tie, a game you can see live on the website and 5th Stand app at 7pm. Then it’s Tottenham Hotspur in the WSL on Sunday afternoon, with coverage starting at 1.55pm.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson (c), Andersson; Ji (Ingle 66), Leupolz; Kirby, Harder (England 80), Cuthbert (Reiten 66); KerrUnused subs Telford, Thorisdottir, Blundell, Carter, J Fleming, CharlesScorer Kerr 21
Brighton (4-4-2) Fiskerstrand; Le Tissier, Stott (Kerkdijk h/t), Williams, Gibbons; Brazil, Heroum (Simpkins 67), O'Sullivan, Kaagman; Whelan, Lee (Bowman 76)Unused subs Walsh, Green, Barton, Jarrett, Bance
Referee Lisa Benn