Chelsea stayed top of the Women’s Super League table with a narrow 1-0 win over Manchester United.
Maren Mjelde scored the only goal of a close game from the penalty spot in the second half, after Fran Kirby was brought down into the box. The Blues remain the only side still unbeaten in the WSL after six games.
But what did we learn?
1. Fran Kirby shows her importance to Chelsea again
When Chelsea won the title in 2017/18, Fran Kirby was excellent. The English forward was at the heart of pretty much everything good Chelsea produced, scoring eight goals and recording six assists in 17 appearances.
It was no surprise, then, to see Chelsea missing her presence in an injury-hit campaign last year which saw the Blues finish third. Kirby also had a stuttering World Cup as she continued her comeback from injury, though the fault should not lay with her on that.
Those injuries have seen Kirby slowly eased into Chelsea team by Emma Hayes this season, but she has not missed her opportunities to remind the club just how important she is. Against Manchester United on Sunday, Kirby started on the bench and watched on as her team struggled to break down a strong defence.
Hayes eventually looked to her star just after the hour mark, replacing Guro Reiten in a somewhat surprising like-for-like change. But less than one minute later, Kirby made the difference.
Running down the left into the box looking to add to her league-high three assists this campaign, Kirby’s neat footwork brought a foul from Abbie McManus. Although there were minimal protests from the 26-year-old, the referee had little option to point to the spot.
Maren Mjelde stepped up and converted the penalty, giving Chelsea the lead and putting them in the driving seat.
2. Lauren James is the future
She may have been on the losing side, but not many players had a better game on Sunday than Manchester United forward Lauren James.
The teenager was excellent playing across the front line, starting down the middle but pushing out to either side depending on what her team needed.
James was particularly focused on Chelsea’s right-hand side, causing Jonna Andersson serious problems with her expert dribbling skills. Prior to Sunday’s game, James had completed more take-ons than any other player in the Women’s Super League – being successful with 16 of her 23 attempts.
There are still things James can improve on, including her finishing, but at 18 she has a lot of time to learn and it won’t be long before she is a regular in the England senior team.
3. Chelsea need Kerr
In the week leading up to Chelsea’s game against Manchester United, the Blues announced the signing of world-class striker Sam Kerr.
New chapter begins in BLUE, lets go! pic.twitter.com/8ljGrBKKP4
— Sam Kerr (@samkerr1) November 13, 2019
The 26-year-old is the all-time leading scorer in the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League and the Australian W-League, having won the Golden Boot in three consecutive years in the former.
However, she cannot be officially registered by Chelsea until 27 December, so will likely not feature for the Blues until the New Year. And it is a period Chelsea will be hoping goes by quickly.
Despite winning to return top of the WSL table, Chelsea struggled to break down the tough Manchester United defence. Although Bethany England is a more-than capable striker, alongside Chelsea’s many other attacking talents, the Blues were just missing something special that an out-and-out goalscorer like Kerr will bring to the team.
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4. Manchester United mean business
Not many people would have known what to expect from Manchester United this season. Having reformed in 2018, the Red Devils stormed the Women’s Championship, winning 18 of their 20 games, scoring 98 goals and conceding just seven.
FT: Chelsea 1 #MUWomen 0
Our unbeaten run ends with defeat at Kingsmeadow. pic.twitter.com/UtXcU1Wwpi
— Manchester United Women (@ManUtdWomen) November 17, 2019
But their promotion to the WSL would be a real test of character Casey Stoney’s side, a league where they were not by far the biggest club. And it’s a test they’re doing pretty well in so far.
Although Manchester United do sit fifth in the table after six games, their three defeats so far this campaign have been to last season’s top three – with Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea all beating the Red Devils 1-0.
And in all three of those games, Manchester United made things seriously tough for their opponents. Against Chelsea on Sunday, Manchester United’s defence set out to frustrate the home side, something they almost pulled off to perfection.
Chelsea were restricted to fleeting chances in the first half and when they did manage to break through, Earps was on hand to save Manchester United – the 26-year-old continuing to push Manchester City’s Ellie Roebuck in the fight to be England’s no.1.
Manchester United weren’t without their chances either and may still be wondering how they did not equalise through Ella Toone’s volley, but Ann-Katrin Berger pulled off a wonderful save and then had a bit of luck as the ball stayed on the right side of the goalline after rebounding back off the German goalkeeper.
With the toughest games out of the way for now, expect Manchester United to return to winning ways and restart their run up the WSL.
5. The WSL title race is as close as ever
Since the WSL turned into a winter league, mimicking men’s football in England, fans have not been treated to real title fight. Chelsea won 2017/18 by six points while Arsenal finished seven clear of their closest rivals last season.
FULL TIME | Well that game had everything! A sensational day at the office as we put five past West Ham! 😍
— Man City Women (@ManCityWomen) November 17, 2019
Arsenal and Manchester City were expected to be the two sides fighting for the title again this year, but Chelsea’s win over Manchester United saw them return to the top of the table.
The Blues had momentarily slipped down to second with Manchester City beating West Ham United in the early kick-off – though they kept the one-point gap over Nick Cushing’s side. Arsenal joined Manchester City in chasing Chelsea thanks to a 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, meaning just one point separates the top three.
And this season, it’s hard to pick which of these three sides will end up title the trophy next year – if any of them. Chelsea have already beat Arsenal, who in turn beat Manchester City and the clash between Nick Cushing’s side and the Blues next month is set to be a big one.
Sunday saw the first Women’s Football Weekend take place, with all 12 Women’s Super League teams in action – plus games across all levels of women’s football. Three of the six WSL games took place at men’s grounds including the North London Derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. So what happened?
Manchester City 5-0 West Ham United
Georgia Stanway had an eventful game, scoring twice before being sent off for two yellow cards in her 100th appearance for Manchester City.
Brighton & Hove Albion 3-0 Birmingham City
Kayleigh Green scored twice to give Hope Powell’s Brighton their first win of the season.
Reading 3-3 Bristol City
Bristol City came from 3-1 down to draw against Reading in a game played at the Madejski Stadium.
Liverpool 0-1 Everton
Lucy Graham scored the only goal of the game to help Everton beat bottom-of-the-table Liverpool at Anfield.
Tottenham Hotspur 0-2 Arsenal
A WSL-record 38,262 fans watched Arsenal win the league’s first North London Derby with goals from Kim Little and Vivianne Miedema.