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GOALS: Chelsea: Pernille Harder 29’, Fran Kirby 65’; Man Utd: Lauren James 61’
All eyes were on the FA Women’s Super League this week as Chelsea and Manchester United faced off with first place in the table at stake. Chelsea, who sat in second place with a 7-0-2 record and 23 points prior to Sunday’s contest, defeated the Reds, 2-1, to move in front thanks to goals from Pernille Harder and Fran Kirby. With the win, Chelsea is now the only undefeated team in the league, having knocked Manchester United from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Here’s what we learned from this weekend’s thrilling tilt between the league’s two best teams.
United’s most recent contest was a 6-1 blowout against Bristol City, the last-place team in the table. Prior to that match, many of Manchester United’s victories had been won by a margin of two goals or less. A win is a win, and each of these victories was certainly an achievement when considering the competition. Among their opponents were top-tier squads such as Everton, Reading, and Arsenal, all members of the top six in league standings, and during these tilts, Manchester United appeared comfortable and in control of the flow of each game.
The opposite was true from the opening whistle on Sunday, as Chelsea dominated the first 45 minutes of play, something no other team has done to United. At halftime, a goal by Pernille Harder saw Chelsea up with a 1-0 advantage, after the Blues booked 11 first-half shots, 4 of which were on target, whereas Manchester United had taken only 2 shots, none of which were on target.
If one thing was inherently clear following Sunday’s match, it’s this — Chelsea provides a level of competition that Manchester United is not yet accustomed to experiencing. Finding themselves on the defensive against elite talents such as Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby, and Pernille Harder, United appeared lackluster when threatened by a fellow top squad. Despite equalizing midway through the second half, United was unable to complete a comeback.
In just their second FAWSL season, United had surprised many by advancing to the top of the table. And while they’ve proven they belong with the best of the best, this loss will certainly sting, as it gave United a chance to prove themselves against a traditional power in Chelsea.
In an interesting decision from Manchester United manager Casey Stoney, both Tobin Heath and Lauren James were left out of the starting line-up and were instead available as substitutes. Heath has scored four goals and notched two assists for the Reds this season, and though Lauren James had yet to score ahead of today’s match, she booked 6 goals in 12 games for her squad during the 2019/2020 season.
Upon the announcement of the starting line-up, many United faithful were speculating that Stoney would utilize the offensive talents as impact substitutes during the second half.
With United down 1-0 at the beginning of the second half, Lauren James came off the bench and made an instant impact, scoring the equalizer in the 61st minute to deadlock the score at 1-1. Surprisingly, Heath never entered the match as a substitute, leaving observers puzzled as to if there were ulterior reasons for her exclusion from Sunday’s game.
It begs the question, would the inclusion of James and Heath (if she was truly available) in the starting line-up have resulted in a different outcome for Manchester United? After all, many of United’s scoring chances are a direct result of the efforts of these two players — and the first half alone indicates that their absence is detrimental to the Reds’ offense. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, as United has to be left wondering if they put their best foot forward in the biggest match of the year.
Following an outstanding four-goal performance in Chelsea’s last match against Reading FC, Fran Kirby was yet again the hero. After receiving a long ball from goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger, Kirby beat three United defenders in a footrace and buried a shot past Mary Earps and into the far left corner of the net. Kirby’s goal would give the Blues the edge they needed to seal the 2-1 victory and surge into first place in the table.
In just two games, Kirby has notched five goals, bringing her season total to eight. She now ranks among the league’s top scorers, second to only Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema.
In an interview ahead of Sunday’s tilt, Kirby assured reporters that the Blues would be ready for Manchester United: “It’s going to be really tough. They are coming to our home. We’ve got to be ready and I’m sure after another good week of training we will be ready to go… Everyone’s excited for the game, we want to keep on playing and keep on winning.”
Keep on winning, indeed — and with Kirby playing at this level, Chelsea is nearly unstoppable given the surplus of superstar talent they have in support. Their undefeated streak has survived another day, and looks to be relatively safe with a game against last-place Bristol City scheduled for this weekend. A more interesting test should come this Wednesday in their FAWSL Cup quarter-final match against Manchester City, who recently signed USWNT player Abby Dahlkemper as they gear up for their own run at a FAWSL title.
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