Goals from Fran Kirby and Erin Cuthbert sealed victory for Chelsea at home to Birmingham City as they were given a huge boost in the WSL 1 title race.
Chelsea from the get-go
A slip from Marisa Ewers saw the hosts gifted their first chance just 20 seconds after the whistle, the visiting defence doing enough to stamp out the danger before Chelsea launched another attack. Having lost some of their defensive resilience, Birmingham lacked certainty, the visitors looking for a quick counter with the ball sent long for lone striker, Ellen White.
With one versus three it already looked as if it would be a long night for White, the hosts with numbers in both boxes, forcing the issue from the get-go. A dizzying run into the box saw Fran Kirby open up another chance just eight minutes in, the ball blocked by Ann-Katrin Berger before Kerys Harrop slid through the box to deny a second chance.
Again, the Blues surged forward, the crowd in full voice as the visitors struggled to clear the ball, Jonna Andersson in the right place to pick it up and fire low. A quick reaction from Berger all to deny the Swede, the shot-stopper sharp to scamper back and halt the ball once and for all as it tricked towards the line after her initial save. The danger didn’t let up for the away side, a poor goal kick from Berger sent straight to Kirby, diligent defending all to keep the teams deadlocked.
The attacks from the hosts didn’t stop and with a certain inevitability they took the lead, a vicious curling strike from the left to the top right corner from Kirby the battering ram. The goal woke the visitors up, another ball sent long this time for Emma Follis to claim, beating Millie Bright to it. Looking for space the Birmingham woman took a touch, pulling Hedvig Lindahl with her, the experienced goalkeeper a measure to the shot, parry too far from Follis.
Birmingham look for a response
From defence to attack, the ball didn’t dwell in the Chelsea half for too long before Kirby and Ramona Bachmann had their tails up in attack. A lay off from the goalscorer to her Swiss teammate bringing about another fine chance, Bachmann’s driven effort flashed across the face as it trickled just wide.
Beating Harrop for pace, Hannah Blundell took off running to chase a loose ball, her pin-point cross just right for Kirby to attack, her rising header put across goal for Aoife Mannion to clear. The wind blowing only one way in Kingston. Sitting deep City defended well, or at least, well enough to keep the hosts out, their attacks slow and focused on build-up. White shirt after white shirt drifting into the attacking half to join the ranks, both teams back with all avenues cut off for Birmingham, their forays forward constantly broken down and countered.
Two quick attacks for the visitors brought about two half chances, Lindahl equal to both, pushing the first away from Charlie Wellings as she broke in before confidently kicking the ball clear moments later. The last good chance of the first half falling to the visitors, Jess Carter’s deep cross nodded wide by White in stoppage time.
A nippy tun from White saw a chance open up for City, her ball into the box collected by Follis though well marshalled by Bright and with her back to goal the attacker could only feed the ball three yards in front of her to Ewers. No stranger to a goal from outside the box, the German took aim, her dipping shot sliding over the crossbar, life left in the visitors yet.
Not having as much joy in attack after the break but looking comfortable in defence, the hosts got forward again just before the hour, a well-time lunge from Mannion enough to disposes Kirby. The wily attacker popping up on the opposite flank minutes later to feed the ball through the box to strike-partner Bachmann, the attacker unable to reach the fizzed ball before it slid past.
Asking persistent questions since the start, Birmingham found parity just after the hour when Carter picked out Hayley Ladd in the congested box, the midfielder bringing the ball down before lashing it home. Again a goal at one end sparked an attack at the other, a foul on Erin Cuthbert giving the hosts a chance at a free kick on the left side of the pitch. Bachmann’s ball whipped into the area as both sides looked to reach it first, the ball lifted just over the bar for a disappointing corner.
Back in the game and still riding their second half momentum, City swept forward again, Wellings’ snap shot sent high over the bar with the goal gaping. Still, Birmingham persisted, a spring in their step as she cut forward, using the width well to ask questions of the Chelsea defence. Rachel Williams the beneficiary of nippy crosses into the box, the rangy attacker doing well to win as much in the air as possible though she struggled with putting her headers on target, a winning goal just out of reach.
Time fast ticked down for both teams, a Bachmann shot from range flew well over the bar before play was stopped for an injury, stoppage time adding up but no route through to goal for either side. Chelsea were the first to streak forward after the pause, a crafted run from Kirby, the chance snugged out by Carter. Substitutions brought about a slight change of shape for the hosts, Maren Mjelde benefiting from the new formation, her vicious effort from range tipped behind by Berger with an equally as eye-catching save.
The Blues weren’t finished yet, a draw enough to keep them ahead of Manchester City in the title race but a three-point cushion far more appealing. Their tails up, the hosts made sure to finish on a high, Mjelde’s dash up the left the tonic for the hosts as she squared to Kirby, the attacker unselfish as she pulled the defence out and found Cuthbert. Already into stoppage time and having timed her run to perfection, the young Scot pulled her foot back to connect with the lay-off, the ball hammered home.