The rate at which Chelsea have stockpiled superstars over the summer suggested they were intent on turning this season’s title race into a procession, but while there was much to admire about their first-half performance against Manchester United they will not, on this evidence, be the only one of these two clubs competing for a Champions League place.
Such was United’s response, after going a goal down early doors following Sam Kerr’s sliding finish at the far post, and perhaps this is the season they move from being the best of the rest to a legitimate top-three side. This marked their first point against the big three from their first two seasons in the Women’s Super League: how many more will they get if, as the rumours suggest, they manage to line up moves for American World Cup winners Tobin Heath and Christen Press before the end of the window?
Casey Stoney’s flicker of a smirk, when asked about the pair by BT Sport’s touchline reporter, was more telling than her answer. “All I can say is the window’s open until the tenth, so we’ll have to wait and see,” said the Manchester United manager.
Their equaliser arrived via Leah Galton – always such a tricky proposition for WSL defences – who peeled in front of Chelsea’s Maren Mjelde to bury substitute Jackie Groenen’s cross and set up a tense finale. With nonchalance that would have been comedic were it not so impressive, Chelsea responded by summoning, off the bench, last season’s WSL player of the year and the world’s most expensive female player in Bethany England and Pernille Harder respectively. No other club in the league can rival Chelsea’s ludicrous squad depth and Harder enjoyed a lively final ten minutes, but could only fire wide before setting up Fran Kirby to stroke her volley over in the final kick of the game.
“I got what I expected from Man United: well organised and difficult to break down,” said the Chelsea manager Emma Hayes. “I thought we were poor by our standards but still had six chances to win the game. I’ll take the draw because it’s a long season and a lot of teams will come here and have a tough game.
“Today, I thought something was missing in our performance – but I’ve got a strong dressing room and we’ll deal with that. Credit to the opponent but I thought we lacked aggression and were disjointed at times. This is the second competitive game for us and I thought it looked like that at times today – but you could see how good we were going forward.”
United – thanks largely to the introduction of Holland midfielder Groenen – controlled the midfield after the break, and full back Ona Batlle, who had spent the first half chasing the recently disappeared shadows of Chelsea’s Kirby and Mjelde, gave as good as she got.
Kirby’s tackle by the goalline on Galton was testament to the former’s first-half workrate and since her return from pericarditis she has looked to be in the best shape of her career. She set up Kerr for the opener, a smart ball clipped along the six-yard box for Kerr to skid onto behind Kirsty Smith, set up by Mjelde’s marauding run down the right. England had previously looked to have the makings of a strong partnership with Kerr, but, having had an operation to her appendix during the extended off-season, is slightly short of full fitness and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see who Hayes favours throughout the season.
Kerr’s first-half performance demonstrated why it has been overly-simplistic to measure her contribution to this Chelsea side solely by her lack of goals, and the Manchester United goalkeeper, Mary Earps, earned her corn keeping out the Australian. Guro Reiten thought she had set up Kerr’s second but the flag was up for offside, while Galton could have levelled earlier when her header smacked off the bar inside the first half.
“I think the first half was maybe a little bit cagey from us – so [I said at half time]: ‘Go out there and believe,’” said Stoney. “‘There’s areas you can exploit, where you can get on the ball and you can hurt them.’ I think, second half, we definitely did that. In the way we applied ourselves and tried to execute the game plan, the players were unbelievable.”