After a subpar performance last time these two sides met, Arsenal were keen to hit the ground running and seemed the brighter side during the opening minutes. When last time Arsenal had stood off they were full of energy, pressing high early on, Hedvig Lindahl was given no time when distributing the ball, as Danielle van de Donk ran at her.
Chelsea were, however, unfazed and easily fell back into their natural game, dominating the ball, trying to force an opening.
Early pressure from Arsenal cut by Kirby strike
A chance fell for Arsenal on the counter, as Alex Scott sent an inch-perfect cross to the back post but van de Donk could only head wide.
Neither team could hold onto the ball for an extended period of time, but that was mostly down to the high number of fouls coming from both teams. Although it must be said, the referee was letting a lot go too, arguably (and confusingly) penalising the softer fouls and letting the harder ones go. But the game was without an obvious rhythm, foul after foul, throw-in cleared for another throw-in, then another.
The breakthrough came 17 minutes in. A long hopeful ball from Ji So-Yun gave Kirby something to chase as she broke through the defence, beating Sari van Veenendaal to the ball to chip it over the advancing 'keeper. Even Jemma Rose trying to hold her off wasn’t enough to deny the young striker; Borehamwood stunned.
The Gunners tried to hit back immediately, Millie Bright just about dealt with Marta Corredera running into the box with the ball. An Arsenal throw in and Chelsea cleared with another long hopeful ball punted into the Arsenal half. It proved too long for Kirby but Rose missed her kick and had to chase the ball down to prevent a throw. The home defence shaken by the scoreline.
Dan Carter turned on the after-burners, got to the by-line and sent a deep cross to the back post. Corredera shimmied away from her marker to receive the ball. One touch, “SHOOT!” the fans urged and the Spaniard obliged, thundering one at goal, Gilly Flaherty throwing her body in the way to block for a corner.
Even up until the break
Jordan Nobbs tried to break for Arsenal, carrying the ball 30 yards before picking out Carter. The England international was unable to keep the ball alive as the Chelsea defence closed her down. Nobbs, this time in behind the defence, saw a bad touch take the ball away from her and cleared by an alert blue shirt.
From one end to the other; van Veenendaal was forced into making a save, Kirby burst away from her marker and tried to slip the ball between 'keeper and near post.
Back to the other end and Carter weaving into the box, rolling Bright but was unable to get around Hannah Blundell, as the full-back marshalled the ball back to her 'keeper. Then a chance fell for Chelsea to extend their lead. Gemma Davison, a live-wire having switched to the left, went on a scything run into the box, hurdling sliding challenges, but her run was not matched by the shot and a glorious opportunity wasted.
Two opportunities arose for Drew Spence as the half drew to a close, firstly after some link-up play between Karen Carney and Davison. The ball dropped to the midfielder, firing a clean strike wide. A minute later, Casey Stoney scrapping with Kirby in midfield, Spence went unmarked and nipped the ball away from the pair but couldn't end her burst before the break with a goal and van Veenendaal saved.
Battle from the beginning of the second half
The second half was barely under way when van Veenendaal was called into action. Kirby found Spence, with the midfielder running deep, shrugging off defenders and firing at goal; the Dutch 'keeper was down quickly, made herself big and saved with a strong foot. Another big chance for Chelsea came with Ji dancing through midfield, setting up Davison. Her strike was met with an even better save from the Arsenal no.13. The half had only just begun and Chelsea were in control.
Yet another foul came as Katie Chapman battled with Nobbs 20 yards out. There were huge protestations from the home support and Craig Hicks awarded the foul, as Nobbs found the back of the net. The Chelsea players had stopped, the home fans were far from happy and Arsenal were left with a set-piece chance.
Fara Williams took the resulting free kick with her shot too strong for Lindahl to hold under challenge, as she dropped the ball. Oshoala was the first to it, pelting the ball directly at the Swede’s legs and the ball went out of play for a corner.
Momentum was shifting to the home side, and van de Donk linked up with Alex Scott to send a cross in but Bright was there to block. Kelly Smith used her quick feet to find Oshoala, but a heavy touch saw Lindahl out to claim the loose ball.
More pressure from the Gunners cam as Smith, Oshoala and Nobbs all combined but Claire Rafferty made a well-timed challenge to clear the ball for a corner. The first ball wasa cleared but kept alive by a resilient Arsenal. The ball back into the box landed on Leah Williamson’s head, as the midfielder flicked it wide.
More fouls in midfield and the referee pulling out his book, Kelly Smith the first name taken.
More fouls and more substitutions, Jade Bailey came on for a less than perfect Carney as Natalia Pablos replaced Rose. Pedro Martinez Losa was throwing the kitchen sink at a tired Chelsea and try as they might, his players just couldn’t find the key to unlock the defence.
A little bit of space on the edge of the box for Nobbs saw her work a shot, though her curler was saved by Lindahl.
Kirby kills the game
Spence tested Sari van Veenendaal again and once more the Dutch international pulled off a superb save with her feet. Borges, on set-piece duty with Carney and Ji both well below par with their delivery all game, sent the ball into the area. Flaherty had the first header to flick the ball on, as Spence had a shot that evaded van Veenendaal but was thumped clear by Williamson on the line. That fell kindly for Kirby who brought it down and thwacked the ball into the roof of the net; finally a cushion.
There were late shouts from the stands for a penalty as Nobbs, in the box, fired one directly at Rafferty; it looked like the ball struck an arm but at point-blank range it was more in hope than expectation. Into the dying minutes as Arsenal frantically searched for a goal, Bright and Flaherty stood firm in the Chelsea box, not letting anything get through to Lindahl and the win was secured.
Out of the race?
Match day three for Arsenal and their second defeat of the season could already see them out of the title race. It’s very early days in the season but, last year, the two teams to finish above them in WSL1 only lost two games each. Chelsea claimed the title with 32 points from a possible 42 – with the expansion this year the highest possible total is 48 points. If Arsenal have any hope of fighting for top spot, they need to be near-perfect from now to the end of the season.
The good news for Arsenal is they have a very strong squad, with the players Losa has at his disposal, they will be a team that no one wants to face – even Chelsea and Man City. New girls, Danielle van de Donk, Asisat Oshoala and Jodie Taylor will be far too much for weaker WSL teams to deal with – not to mention the more familiar names; Nobbs, Carter, Natalia, Smith. This team will win games, there is no question, but will they be able to find the gaps in the Chelsea and Man City defences? Is it already too late?
Blues cruise to the top
Chelsea visibly started to tire in the second half – having gone two solid hours against City on Sunday might still be affecting some of the squad – although some players didn’t quite look at their best, Carney and even Davison were below their own lofty standards in Borehamwood. On the other hand, Kirby was excellent, goal aside, she really sparkled for her side, always looked dangerous. (If she features at Wembley, Losa would be wise to deploy someone just to man-mark her for as long as she’s on the pitch).
Chelsea currently top of the WSL1 table (only having played twice) and many would be surprised to see them falling down the list, from 'keeper to striker, they’re rock solid. Furthermore, Emma Hayes boasts the most depth of any team in the league; if anything isn’t working on the pitch, she’ll always have adequate cover on the bench, something Nick Cushing can’t claim with his City side.
Both teams were adamant that this match was not a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup final, both would have been 100% focused on the league. However, both managers would have learned a lot from this match. It would be a surprise if Hayes started the same XI at Wembley as today, but Losa has time to go away and work out a way of breaking down the mean Blue defence.