The Blues recovered from conceding an early goal to earn a point courtesy of Bethany England’s 11th of the season, but our six-match winning streak in the Barclays Women’s Super League came to a halt in our final fixture of 2019.
Although Liverpool came into the game sitting at the bottom of the standings, the Reds have been strong defensively all season and they were buoyed by taking the lead after only five minutes when Niamh Charles prodded them in front from a set-piece.
Their advantage proved to be short-lived, however, as Chelsea deservedly drew level 10 minutes later. Having been denied by some remarkable last-ditch defending a few moments earlier, England wasn’t going to pass up another opportunity when she emphatically headed home Guro Reiten’s cross.
The home side were clearly content to soak up pressure and try to hit us on the counter with their pacey attacking players, but the bulk of the best opportunities were still being created by the Blues. Maren Mjelde went close with dipping free-kicks either side of half-time, while both England and Millie Bright only just missed out on profiting from crosses into the box, as both players narrowly failed to make decent contact when unmarked.
Our best opportunity to go in front came early in the second half, when Sophie Ingle’s header against her former club came back off the post and was scrambled away to safety as a number of Blues looked to get on the end of the rebound.
The grandstand finish many may have been expecting never materialised, though, and we were left frustrated by our inability to turn territorial dominance into an advantage on the scoreboard and we made the long journey back to our Cobham training ground with only a point.
The Blues had been in midweek action against Reading, closing our Continental League Cup group campaign with a draw, albeit followed by a penalty shoot-out defeat to decide who got the extra point. Unsurprisingly, Emma Hayes opted to shuffle her pack with the quick turnaround to our final game of 2019, making five changes.
Ann-Katrin Berger, Mjelde, Bright, Jonna Andersson and Ramona Bachmann were restored to the starting line-up, replacing Carly Telford, Hannah Blundell, Jess Carter, goalscorer Deanna Cooper and Ji So-Yun.
The goalkeeper and defence remained the same as it has since the second WSL game of the season, which meant Berger lining up behind Mjelde, Bright, captain Magdalena Eriksson and Andersson. Although Drew Spence and Ingle were nominally selected as the deepest of our midfielders, there wasn’t a second step taken backwards in this one and with Bachmann, Erin Cuthbert and Reiten hovering around lone striker England, we had an abundance of attacking threats.
That spelled bad news for a few former Blues who were lining up for Liverpool at Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers. As well as goalkeeper Fran Kitching, they also included Becky Jane, Niamh Fahey and Jade Bailey in their starting XI.
The home side have struggled for goals in open play throughout this WSL season, but they took just over four minutes to get their noses in front. A free-kick wasn’t properly dealt with by Berger, who palmed it back into the danger zone to Charles, who was surrounded by Chelsea defenders. After a quick round of pinball inside the box her shot trickled past a host of Blue shirts and into the far corner. It was an uncharacteristic episode for a defence which has been largely flawless this term.
We reacted well to conceding the early goal, but somehow Liverpool remained in front following a well-worked move which deserved to finish up with the ball in the back of the net. Andersson’s cross to the far post was headed across goal by Mjelde and the keeper brilliantly kept it out, but she was unable to push it to safety. It looked a formality for England to add to her team-leading goal tally, but a heroic block on the line denied her and then Reiten was also unable to turn it home as another Liverpool defender put her body on the line. As far as last-ditch defending goes, you’ll see few better examples than this.
Fortunately for those of a Blues persuasion, it mattered little in the grand scheme of things. Just over a minute later we were back on level terms and this time there was no denying England against the side she spent a prolific loan spell with a couple of seasons back. Cuthbert played a crucial role in the build-up, showing great strength to hold off her marker and then sending Reiten scampering away down the left. The Norwegian’s cross was pinpoint, the header from England textbook, back across the keeper and into the far corner.
After the action-packed opening, the game settled down, although it must be said the visiting Blues were looking the most likely side to score a second. Mjelde came close with a free-kick which just didn’t quite dip enough and then on the half-hour mark England almost doubled her tally when another teasing cross into the danger zone eluded her by a matter of centimetres. She also saw a headed effort blocked on the line by Fahey, as Liverpool continued to ride their luck in the defensive third to go in level at the break.
There was no change in personnel at the break, but the weather took a turn for the worse as heavy rainfall returned to the North-West. It almost played a telling role in our first meaningful attack of the second half, though, as Ingle’s powerful downward header skipped off the surface and over Kitching’s outstretched left hand, only for the post to come to the keeper’s rescue. The Blues No5 couldn’t believe her luck against the club she represented with distinction before returning to Chelsea last summer.
Although we were the side looking to get on the front foot, chances were proving hard to come by, which owed much to Liverpool’s dogged defending. Despite coming into the game as the WSL’s bottom club, the Reds had conceded only 11 times in their nine league matches coming into this fixture and as the clock ticked past 60, we’d struggled to create much in the second half.
Mjelde went close again with an almost identical free-kick to the one she struck in the first half that didn’t miss the target by much, and Cuthbert’s never-say-die spirit almost created an unlikely opening as she chased down what looked to be a lost cause and outmuscled the defender, only to see her effort deflected wide.
With 15 minutes remaining, Hayes brought on the only attacking player named among her five substitutes, as Ji was introduced in place of Bachmann, soon to be followed by Blundell, who replaced Reiten. The South Korean has scored some of her best goals for the Blues away at Liverpool – could she conjure up another magical moment to light up a grey afternoon in the North-West?
There were few signs the game was going to turn in our favour as the full-time whistle loomed and, indeed, we were indebted to an excellent stop by Berger to keep out a low drive by Rinsola Babajide which was threatening to creep in at the near post.
We were into desperation territory by this stage, as the introduction of Carter from the bench saw Bright thrown up front to offer another aerial threat in the attacking third. The move very nearly paid off, as an inviting cross by Mjelde only just evaded our vice-captain.
Alas, we could not find a breakthrough as Liverpool held out to take a point which denied us the opportunity to move back above Manchester City and into second place. It was a frustrating way for the Blues to close out 2019, but with fresh faces to strengthen the squad going into the new year, we’ll be looking to hit the ground running when the league resumes at the start of next month.
After the Christmas break we’re back at Kingsmeadow on Sunday 5 January to take on Reading in the WSL. It could be a first opportunity for Blues fans to catch a glimpse of new signings Sam Kerr and Jamie Lee-Napier, so click here to buy your tickets now!
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson (c), Andersson; Ingle, Spence (Carter 82); Bachmann (Ji 75), Cuthbert, Reiten (Blundell 77); EnglandUnused subs Telford, CooperScorer England 15Booked Cuthbert 84, Andersson 90
Liverpool Kitching, Jane, Bradley-Auckland, Fahey, Robe, Bailey, Roberts, Charles (Hodson 90+4), Linnett (C Murray 83), Lawley (Sweetman-Kirk 68), BabajideUnused subs Rodgers, KearnsScorer Charles 5Booked Linnett 59, Jane 64, Bradley-Auckland 78
Referee L Saunders