Man City put Chelsea and company on notice – they are in this WSL title race
“It’s about time,” said Manchester City manager Gareth Taylor after his first Women’s Super League (WSL) win over Chelsea since being appointed three years ago.
The closest he had previously come was in April 2021, when a 2-2 home draw in the third-last game led to City missing out on the title to Chelsea by those two dropped points. “Outside of that,” Taylor said, “it has not been great.”
With six games left in their WSL season, Sunday’s 2-0 defeat of the visiting champions was a “big step”, according to Taylor. Only goal difference now separates City (plus 20) and league leaders Manchester United (plus 33), Chelsea are one point behind them both but have a game in hand.
“Chelsea win the title if we don’t win (today),” said Taylor, who felt if the result had gone the other way the gap would be too big to close with so few matches remaining. City’s victory — their first over Chelsea in the league since May 2017 — has opened up the title race, with just three points covering the top four. Arsenal are two adrift of Chelsea having played the same number of games.
“The girls were under no illusions today,” said Taylor. “We spoke all week about it: ‘We have to win this game’.”
City looked slick and took the game to Chelsea. Their press was tenacious and forced high turnovers. Their early intensity was highlighted by the fact they won six corners within the game’s first 20 minutes.
The opening goal was a clear example of their aggressive play.
Filippa Angeldahl’s interception of Ann-Katrin Berger’s goal kick deep in the Chelsea half triggered a quick transition. Lauren Hemp picked up the ball and two touches later Angeldahl was in the penalty area. Chelsea were too deep, backed off further and failed to close down the Sweden international, who clipped a pinpoint shot into the top corner.
City continued to be aggressive and left-back Laia Aleixandri stepped up to intercept Maren Mjelde’s pass and start the move for the second goal on the half-hour. Once again, Angeldahl linked up well with the right winger, this time Chloe Kelly. Chelsea failed to clear Kelly’s looped cross and Hemp pounced.
England manager Sarina Wiegman, who was watching from the stands, will be pleased to see the return of Hemp’s fine form. Hemp is suffering from an ear infection and didn’t train on Saturday, but that goal and the fact athletics superstar Usain Bolt, who was also in the crowd, asked for her shirt should give her a confidence boost going into the international break that begins next weekend.
Although not on the scoresheet, Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw’s hold-up play was instrumental to City’s victory. Her touch and swerve of the hips to move away from pressure when dropping deep, as well as her strength, facilitated many attacks.
It wasn’t just in attack that City looked clinical, though. Defensively, they were secure.
Steph Houghton, a vocal leader, and Alex Greenwood, who kept Sam Kerr quiet, have built a solid centre-back partnership, unlike Chelsea’s makeshift pairing of Kadeisha Buchanan and Magdalena Eriksson, with Millie Bright sidelined by a knee injury suffered on Champions League duty in midweek.
As well as keeping things tight, the City defence were able to beat Chelsea’s press with ease. Aleixandri, who can also play in midfield, tucked in more centrally when the home side played out from the back. This meant City overloaded the midfield while also creating space on the left wing to exploit.
Kelly and Hemp linked effectively with midfielders Angeldahl and Laura Coombs, while deep-lying midfielder Yui Hasegawa coped well receiving the ball under pressure. Hasegawa initiated attacks, turning Erin Cuthbert and Melanie Leupolz on occasions, and fed Kelly on the wings while also thwarting Chelsea’s moves forward.
“From day one, (she has) high levels of intelligence, quality and anticipation,” said Taylor of Hasegawa.
At the very beginning of the season, however, City didn’t have the Japan international’s services. Aleixandri was playing as the holding midfielder and Hasegawa only arrived on transfer deadline day, September 8, following Keira Walsh’s world-record move to Barcelona.
Last summer there was also a mass exodus of players, with nine leaving City for various reasons. The most significant impact was losing the core of their squad: Lucy Bronze, Caroline Weir, Georgia Stanway and Walsh all went to clubs on the continent.
“It was a big transitional period,” said Taylor.
In a rocky start to the season, City failed to progress in the Champions League and lost their opening two WSL games against Aston Villa and Chelsea. They dropped to 10th, with no points on the board and were tied with Leicester, who are bottom with only seven points, on goal difference.
New signings with little WSL experience took time to settle in and learn the system.
“The levels have improved,” Taylor said. “You see the very best of us when we are calm and composed in our play. We can still improve in that.”
For all of City’s brilliance yesterday, Chelsea looked sluggish and Taylor admitted he felt “calm” in the second half as the Londoners never posed any major threat.
City did not drop deep even when they took that two-goal lead and limited Chelsea to half attempts. They fed off the lethargy in opponents who were playing their third consecutive away game in the past eight days and beat holders Lyon in a Champions League quarter-final first leg in France on Wednesday.
Unlike treble-chasing Chelsea, the WSL is the only trophy left for City to lift this season and this crucial win has kept their title hopes very much alive.
(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)