The Blues struck an early blow in the Barclays Women’s Super League title race, as goals from Maren Mjelde, Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby settled a pulsating top-of-the-table clash at Kingsmeadow.
Games between two of English football’s heavyweight sides rarely disappoint, and this one certainly didn’t once the early feeling-out process was out of the way and we had opened the scoring late in the first half.
Maren Mjelde was the goalscorer, netting in this fixture for the second season running and marking her 50th WSL appearance in style, as she confidently slotted home a penalty that was awarded for handball against Demi Stokes.
From that moment on, Emma Hayes’s side were in complete control, and the only surprise was that it took us as long as 10 minutes into the second half to find a second goal.
After several chances went begging following the interval, Kerr made no mistake from a pin-point low cross from Kirby, slotting home our second and giving us a crucial buffer.
There could have been a nervy conclusion, as a rare City attack resulted in a penalty that Chloe Kelly fired in with a little under 20 minutes remaining of the contest.
However, a superb counter-attack saw Erin Cuthbert send a delightful pass through to Kirby, who beat Ellie Roebuck to the ball and slotted into an empty net to restore our two-goal advantage.
Our defence stood firm in the final 10 minutes to ensure we continued our fine recent record against Man City, not to mention making it 25 games without defeat in the WSL.
More importantly, the win moves us three points clear of City and only two behind the early pacesetters at the top of the table, Arsenal and Everton.
There’s still plenty of football to be played, but these are often the results one looks back on at the end of the season when the major prizes are handed out – and the only disappointment of a near-perfect afternoon was that our wonderful supporters couldn’t be there at Kingsmeadow to witness it.
It was fitting that this fixture between last season’s top two in the WSL landed on International Day of the Girl and the Blues warmed up ahead of kick-off in t-shirts showing our support for our official global charity partner Plan International’s Listen To Girls campaign, to help protect girls’ safety online.
When the action got underway, our starting line-up showed five changes from the side that beat Arsenal so convincingly in our Continental League Cup opener in midweek. Carly Telford, Maria Thorisdottir, Sophie Ingle, Niamh Charles and Guro Reiten made way for Ann-Katrin Berger, Mjelde, Melanie Leupolz, Cuthbert and Kirby.
Pernille Harder and Kerr were among the six to maintain their place in the team and they linked up well as a strike pairing in the early stages of this contest, as Hayes’ selection showed plenty of attacking intent with two attacking wide players plus the creative talents of Ji So-Yun offering support. Leupolz was nominally the deepest midfielder, protecting a back four of Mjelde, Millie Bright, Magda Eriksson and Jonna Andersson.
The first 20 minutes of this contest played out exactly as one would expect a fixture between two evenly matched and highly skilled opponents such as these – the archetypal ‘cagey opening’ and ‘feeling out process’ that comes with games of this magnitude was on display for the stand-out WSL meeting of the weekend.
Those who can appreciate the defensive side were treated to masterclasses at both ends of the field, as Eriksson snuffed out a bright City attack through Ellen White by reading the play and stepping out at precisely the right moment, before Lucy Bronze responded in kind with an athletic retreat to halt a promising break for Harder.
Aside from a pot shot here and there, neither goalkeeper had much to do until Sam Mewis gave Berger cause for concern midway through the first half. The USA international fired a low shot from outside the box that beat the dive of our keeper but, fortunately for those of a Chelsea persuasion, bounced back off the post rather than nestling in the bottom corner.
With so little between the teams, the importance of set-piece situations increases – and that is how the deadlock was broken with just under 10 minutes to go before half-time. Kirby’s determination down the right-hand side forced a corner, which was eventually played out to Cuthbert for a strike from outside the box. The Scot got plenty behind it and the ball appeared to hit a City hand and deflect away to safety.
Referee Rebecca Welch agreed, pointing to the penalty spot and showing a yellow card to White – replays suggested she got the first decision right but the second wrong, as the ball had hit Stokes instead of the City striker. That mattered not to Mjelde, who confidently stepped forward and slotted a well-struck shot into the bottom right-hand corner as Ellie Roebuck dived the other way.
The old saying ‘goals change games’ was certainly ringing true here, as suddenly we looked in complete control. Indeed, by half-time there may even have been some disappointment that our lead wasn’t greater than one.
Another corner kick led to chaotic scenes on the edge of the City six-yard box, as several players tried to force the ball through a wall of defenders, but somehow the visitors stood firm and the final shot from Leupolz deflected away to safety.
Then, with the interval a matter of seconds away, Ji linked up smartly with Harder down the left-hand side and the South Korean sent a peach of a cross towards the penalty spot. Up rose Kerr in trademark fashion, but she couldn’t quite get enough power behind the header and it was a straightforward stop for Roebuck.
After ending the half so strongly, the fear is that a 15-minute break will be a momentum killer, but that didn’t seem to be the case for Chelsea as we continued to break at speed and create chances. The first, from Cuthbert, was a well-stuck shot just wide of the post, following a driving run from Ji. A minute or so later, Kerr got up well at the back post but couldn’t direct her header goal-bound.
An even better chance came Cuthbert’s way 10 minutes into the second half, this one all of her own doing, as the Scot nipped in ahead of a dawdling defender to run through on goal. Her composure abandoned her on this occasion, though, as she curled a shot over the bar.
A shot count that had been even for much of the first half was now reading 14-3 in Chelsea’s favour, although only two had found the target. Would we come to rue so many missed opportunities?
The answer was as swift as the counter-attack that delivered a second goal which had been on the cards ever since we took the lead. Ji sent Kirby scampering away down the right with a superb pass and our No14 was onto it like a flash, sending an early ball across goal for Kerr to tap in. The celebrations indicated how much that one meant to the Australian and her team-mates, as we finally made our early second-half domination count.
With the game slipping away from them, City made a pair of attacking changes, bringing on Rose Lavelle and Georgia Stanway in a bid to force their way back into the contest. Having had things our own way for so long, suddenly we were being asked to defend our 18-yard box. Hayes responded with a change of her own, introducing England in place of Harder.
Both managers clearly sensed the importance of the next goal, which would either keep the game interesting as a contest or send the Blues ever closer to victory. Alas, it went the way of the visitors, via a penalty awarded for handball against Bright. Kelly dispatched her effort into the top corner and it was game on once again.
Another Chelsea change followed the goal, as Charles replaced Kerr, and soon the momentum was shifting once again. There looked to be little on when Berger had the ball in her own six-yard box and was being put under immense pressure by Lavelle, but the keeper kept her composure to play a short pass out to Eriksson. Two passes later, the second from Cuthbert only 35 yards from her own goal, Kirby was bearing down on Roebuck and showing a cool head to skip past the City keeper and slot home with her left foot. A goal that encapsulated modern football was, more importantly, a crucial blow struck in the first contest between two of the major players in this season’s WSL title race.
We now have a long wait until our next match, following the early postponement of next Saturday’s fixture against Aston Villa due to a member of the Villans’ squad testing positive for COVID-19 and then a break for internationals. We return to action on Wednesday 4 November with a home tie against Tottenham Hotspur in the Continental League Cup.
Chelsea (4-4-2) Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson (c), Andersson; Kirby, Leupolz, Ji (Ingle 85), Cuthbert; Harder (England 69), Kerr (Charles 74)Unused subs Telford, Thorisdottir, C Fleming, Reiten, J FlemingScorers Mjelde (pen) 37, Kerr 57, Kirby 79Booked Bright 33, Mjelde 88
Manchester City (4-3-3) Roebuck; Bronze, Houghton (c), Bonner, Stokes; Mewis, Walsh, Weir (Scott 80); Park (Stanway 60), White (Lavelle 60), KellyUnused subs Bardsley, Coombs, Beckie, Morgan, Greenwood, BenameurScorer Kelly (pen) 73Booked White 36, Mewis 45+3
Referee Rebecca Welch
Crowd Behind closed doors