Goals from Demi Stokes and Jennifer Beattie either side of half-time were the difference in a midweek title clash, with Manchester City Women beating Chelsea Ladies 2-0 away from home to go six points clear at the summit of the WSL1 table.
City start strongest
Fresh off of their FA Cup final defeat at the hands of London-rivals, Arsenal, Chelsea took a while to settle, Man City dominating the opening ten minutes. Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris particularly profitable on the right, all three finding space to attack early on but the Blues tight enough at the back to clear any immediate danger.
Eni Aluko switched flanks with Bethany England and resumed her fiery contest with Bronze from their FA Cup encounter, the two England international's more than happy to scrap for the ball at both ends of the pitch.
As Chelsea were growing, Fran Kirby was starting to hound and harass the City defence more and more, chasing after every loose ball, relentlessly pressurising Steph Houghton and Abbie McManus, the wily attacker playing off the shoulder and always willing to close down.
Challenges were heavy as every ball was contested, the fans in full voice, Drew Spence booked in the opening minutes, Millie Bright up ending Lucy Bronze within seconds of kick-off, neither team phoning it in. But still the hosts continued to grow, getting tighter and tighter to their opponents, forcing one-touch football, City with no time to think.
Parris, tightly marked by Claire Rafferty, managed to roll the defender and spring away, strong to stay on her feet and making for the by-line, her low cross cleared for a corner. The ball kept alive at the set piece, Toni Duggan’s header curling over the bar. Chelsea at the other end, attacked a deep throw in, Millie Bright’s shot clearing the bar.
Both sides were more than happy to shoot, but neither anywhere near clinical enough.
Another chance came along for the hosts, Aluko curling a cross towards the back post, England and Demi Stokes shoulder to shoulder for it, the former-Belle stretching but unable to get a touch on the ball.
Hannah Blundell, getting tight to Stokes, refused to be dummied, with a big toe to the ball to stop her opposite number breaking into the box, then closing down the resulting throw in, not letting Duggan get a cross in.
Deadlock held, but for how long?
Hedvig Lindahl was called into action to make an impressive finger-tip save after a ferocious effort from Duggan, the striker on the left just outside the box, letting one fly, the ball dropping and curling but the big Swede clawing it away for a corner. The corner was sent to the near-post for Duggan to side-foot hopelessly wide.
With the City defence suddenly shaky, Spence pounced on a loose ball, taking it into the box and toe-poking it goalwards but Karen Bardsley was down quickly to save. But another miscue just in front of the City backline came next, Aluko, Spence and Kirby all keeping the ball alive, the visitors scrambling and unable to clear, the eventual shot comfortably over the bar.
Bronze and Houghton both going to clear the same ball, ricocheting between the both of them and deflecting back towards their goal, Kirby’s eyes lighting up, chasing after it, into the box, teeing up but McManus with a perfectly timed slide-tackle to prevent the shot. The home side were pressing and pressing the guests but Man City still managed to pass out of trouble, turning defence into attack in one swift move, always looking dangerous when going forward.
Bright went into the book for a heavy challenge on Scott, City quick to get the ball moving again. A quick throw-in followed, Kosovare Asllani first to the ball, and feeding Stokes, in acres of space. The defender opening her account for the season, the ball hit low, bouncing off of the inside of the post and snuggling into the back of the net, seconds before half-time.
Visitors make it two just after the restart
The Citizens were again the side to start the sharpest in the second-half, Jennifer Beattie with a lofted ball to pick out Parris on the right, the pacey attacker took it deep to cross for an arriving team mate, Rafferty back and down quickly to poke the ball out for a corner. Asllani sent the ball to the back post, Houghton and Beattie both jumped for it, the latter with a firm forehead to send the ball through Lindahl’s arms and into the back of the net.
Another corner for the visitors followed shortly after, Chelsea scrambling to just about clear the danger.
Emma Hayes, clearly unhappy with the score opted for two early changes, Bright and England replaced by Ji So-Yun and Gemma Davison with just seven minutes of the second half played.
Davison made an immediate impact, taking on, and besting everyone in Sky Blue at one point or another. Battling with Stokes, running deep, knocking the ball past her marker, Kirby missing her kick but the ball droppied kindly for Ji. The Korean international, six yards out, smashed the ball against the underside of the crossbar, Bardsley beaten as the ball bounced behind her but flew back into the box,
Houghton helped it further away and Blundell got to the follow up; a low drive, gratefully held by Bardsley. Chelsea fans aggrieved, convinced the ball crossed the line.
Davison was ploughing through players again, beating them as if they were tricks of the light, but her passing was well below average, a blistering 40-yard run to the by-line made useless as the ball was sent back to the opposition
Rafferty, coming onto the ball from deep, was only able to strike the side-netting, as prolonged spell of Chelsea pressure failed to result in meaningful chances.
More good news for Citizens
If the travelling fans were happy enough about the score, Nick Cushing certainly gave them something to cheer about when Izzy Christiansen entered the fray, replacing Asllani with half an hour left to play. The magisterial midfielder with her first competitive football since going off injured against Liverpool in mid-March.
Both sides had flashed but the second-half was a midfield battle, neither could retain possession for very long. One counter-attack following into an opposing one.
One last roll of the dice for Hayes and her Blues, Karen Carney replacing Spence. Christiansen latched onto a poor goal kick and flicked on for Parris, Lindahl throwing her body at the ball to clear for corner. Beattie was the first to meet the ball, her goal-bound header cleared before it could cross, and everyone back fell into midfield.
Kirby helped create one final chance with a ball for Ji, Carney with the eventual shot, her curler beating Bardsley but slipping just wide of the post.
City opening up a gap
The result sees Man City go six points clear at the top of WSL – Chelsea still with a game in hand – the Citizens more than happy to have the home advantage next time they have to take on the current champions.
Chelsea will obviously be disappointed with the result, but can take heart from their performance which was markedly better than the somewhat complacent effort they put in in the FA Cup final.
The pendulum swung back and forth throughout this match, both sides had their chances, but for the most part they managed to cancel each other out, the visitors capitalising on errors, the hosts unable to make them count.