United match Chelsea’s big names to offer top-three hope
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 in the 25th minute through Sam Kerr’s sliding finish at the far post, 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 make 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 on BT Sport, was more telling than her answer. “All I can say is the window’s open until the 10th, so we’ll have to wait and see,” the United manager said.
Their equaliser arrived via Leah Galton, who peeled in front of Maren Mjelde to bury substitute Jackie Groenen’s cross and set up a tense finale. With nonchalance that would have been comic 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 squad depth and Harder enjoyed a lively final 10 minutes, but could only fire wide before setting up Fran Kirby to stroke her volley over in the last moments.
“I got what I expected from Man United: well organised and difficult to break down,” Emma Hayes, the Chelsea manager, said. “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.”
United – thanks largely to the introduction of Holland’s Groenen – controlled the midfield after the break, and fullback Ona Batlle, who had spent the first half chasing the shadows of Kirby and Mjelde, gave as good as she got.
Kirby’s tackle by the goal-line on Galton was testament to her firsthalf work rate and, since her return from pericarditis, she has looked to be in the best shape of her career. She set up the opener, a smart ball clipped along the six-yard box for Kerr to skid on to behind Kirsty Smith, created 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 see who Hayes favours during 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 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.
“The first half was a bit cagey from us,” Stoney said. “I think, second half, in the way we applied ourselves and tried to execute the plan, the players were unbelievable.” Manchester United(4-2-3-1) Earps; Batlle (Okvist 74), M Turner, McManus, Smith; Zelem, Ladd; Hanson (Groenen 53), Toone, Galton; Ross (James 60). Subs Ramsey (g), A Turner. Booked Okvist, Zelem.
Chelsea (4-3-3) Telford; Mjelde, Eriksson, Bright, Andersson (Carter 80); Ingle, Leupolz, Ji (Cuthbert 58); Kirby, Kerr (England 66), Reiten (Harder 80).
Subs Blundell, Fleming, Charles, Spence, Orman (g). Referee Rebecca Welch.
Deserved: Leah Galton celebrates her equaliser with 11 minutes left