Emma Hayes said after Chelsea Ladies’ crushing defeat to Manchester City Women that the Women’s Super League title race is far from over. This convincing 2-1 victory over Sunderland Ladies, sealed by goals from Katie Chapman and Fran Kirby, not only reiterates the quality this London outfit possess but reduces City’s lead to just four points.
“They [City] think the league is already won.” proclaimed Hayes after last week’s loss. “The advantage is with them, but we just have to keep going.”
Back-to-back defeats for Chelsea Ladies could hardly have been more damaging. After an unbeaten start to the season in all competitions, the Blues fell victim to two stunning performances that dealt a titanic blow to their defense of the double they secured last season.
An ineffable Danielle Carter strike at Wembley saw the holders reluctantly but deservedly concede their FA Cup crown to Arsenal Ladies before Manchester City, in spite of an improved performance from the hosts, secured all three points in Staines to go six points clear at the summit of WSL One.
Few changes to both sides despite poor results
The visit of Sunderland then provided Hayes’ team with an opportunity to showcase their gumption and spirit. The champions did so having made three changes to the starting XI as Ji So-yun, Karen Carney and Gemma Davison returned to the line-up in place of Millie Bright, Drew Spence and Bethany England.
Carlton Fairweather kept his team relatively similar to the side that succumbed to a 4-0 defeat to Liverpool Ladies last time out. Young Danielle Brown came in for Abby Holmes at right-back while Kelly McDougall earned a place in Carlton Fairweather’s side after a cameo appearance against Liverpool.
Chelsea respond well to Sunderland opener
Chelsea were quite clearly damaged by those two successive defeats and the home side were unable to stamp their authority in the opening exchanges, finding themselves behind just six minutes into proceedings at Wheatsheaf Park.
A ball over the top by long-serving midfielder Kelly McDougal should have been dealt with by Chelsea’s normally solid defense but were unable to clear their lines due to the presence of Beth Mead. The Young Player of the Year was unselfish in her play and subsequently found the onrushing Stephanie Roche on the periphery of the penalty area, who passed the ball into the net to give the visitors an unexpected lead.
A superbly positive response by a potentially shell-shocked Chelsea was rewarded just minutes after the opener, though, when Katie Chapman rose highest to head Karen Carney’s ineffable free-kick past Rachel Laws in the Sunderland net.
The Blues were not allowed the rest of their laurels in Staines following their instantaneous equalizer and produced a plethora of goalscoring opportunities as a result. Fran Kirby’s effort from a tight angle was fired just wide of the near post and Eniola Aluko, who was brilliantly found by a heavily involved Karen Carney, had her effort saved by the goalkeeper.
A much-needed comeback was complete moments after Aluko’s miss as the England international’s trickery on the wing enabled her to reach the by-line before crossing the ball back towards a lively Fran Kirby that was able to loop her header over the ‘keeper.
The away side welcomed Robert Whitton’s half-time whistle after they were placed under intense pressure by their opponents but remained in the match due to Chelsea’s poor finishing, which was typified by Aluko’s disappointing volley and Gilly Flaherty’s header.
Dominance but no end product from Blues
News of Manchester City Women’s draw with Liverpool Ladies was announced as the players left the field for the interval and this appeared to galvanize Chelsea as they looked to close the gap to just four points.
The lackadaisical-type errors that had cost the London outfit in the first-half were almost non-existent in the remaining 45 minutes as the Blues’ relentless forwards forced Sunderland continuously deeper.
The Lady Black Cats’ reliance was severely tested as they looked to obtain a vital point prior to the lengthy international break. Mark Sampson was watching from the stands and would have been impressed by Eniola Aluko's display. The England manager left Aluko out of his squad that faces Serbia in the European Championship Qualifiers in a number of days but, although she was unlucky to be denied on multiple occasions, the former Birmingham star at least gave the boss something to think about going forward.
The 29-year-old was denied by an impressive Laws just past the 50-minute mark when her strike was well saved at Laws’ near post. Aluko dragged a further shot wide after an intelligent Kirby dummy before the former cut inside from the left and saw a stunning effort once again saved by the goalkeeper.
Ji So-yun, Katie Chapman, Fran Kirby and Drew Spence all spurned their opportunities during the dying minutes as this encounter petered out.
The result was always more important than the performance but Hayes, having seen her side created 36 shots on goal, would have been proud of her player's desire after falling behind.