Chelsea Ladies 0-2 City Women (Stokes 44, Beattie 48)
Competition: FA Women’s Super League 1
Venue: Wheatsheaf Park, Staines (att: 1,518)
Date: 19 May 2016 (19:30)
They came. They played. They conquered. It’s always best to avoid hyperbole where football is concerned, but City Women’s victory in Staines on Thursday night certainly evokes the words ‘momentous’ and ‘decisive’. The season is only six games old, but every match counts in the WSL, and they count even more against your title rivals. City didn’t just snatch a win over Chelsea, they thoroughly outplayed the reigning Super League champions, maintaining their 100% record with a classy, professional performance, and yet another clean sheet.
As has been their wont in recent games, City got off to a decent start, Lucy Bronze registering the first chance of the evening with a speculative effort that flew wide. Midfielder Drew Spence caused referee Nigel Lugg to get his book out early, conceding the first yellow of the game on four minutes, after a challenge on Jennifer Beattie. City kept the tempo of their positive start up, and on 15 minutes, Jane Ross had a chance to put the Blues deservedly ahead, though could only sky it. Both Nikita Parris and, encouragingly, Kosovare Asllani then started to make wending runs and snaking turns across the pitch, forcing a corner and a chance for City striker Toni Duggan, respectively.
City’s Swedish superstar Asllani has had a slow start to life in the WSL, but the former PSG forward has started to show signs of promise in recents games, scoring her first competitive goal against Doncaster Rovers Belles three weeks ago. If you’re wondering about the lack of a match report for the Belles game, by the way, fear not – it will be mentioned in detail in my mid-season review (keep your eyes peeled for that after the Liverpool game on Weds). But yeah, what a game to miss writing about. My bad!
Moving back to the Chelsea match, the Londoners recorded their first attempt on Karen Bardsley’s goal on 22 minutes, midfielder Millie Bright failing to keep her shot on target. Soon after, City nearly broke the deadlock through Duggan, who worked Chelsea keeper Hedvig Lindahl excellently with an audacious volley. Football being what it is, the Blues were immediately let off from a sucker-punch, as Spence failed to capitalise after finding herself one-on-one with Bardsley. So surprisingly poor in the FA Women’s Cup Final on Saturday, Chelsea suddenly began to grow into the game a little more past the half hour mark, forcing the contest into more of a niggly affair, and hampering City’s hitherto exceptional gameplay.
Asllani had a fair penalty appeal turned down as the clock ticked towards the interval, and there was that sense that this would be another ‘one of those games’ scenarios. Fortunately for City, Demi Stokes was having none of that. The left-back has enjoyed a fantastic season in Sky Blue so far, and delighted in scoring her first goal for City, beating Lindahl with a superb low drive across the box, after first collecting Asllani’s clever pass. City going ahead was a fitting end to a first half in which the Blues had roundly dominated.
After that blistering first 45, the best thing Nick Cushing’s charges could do once back on the field was double their lead straight away, particularly seeing as Chelsea had started to hint at their potential before the break. For once, City were obliging, choosing to do things the easier way (a novelty for all us Blues, I’m sure), and actually score whilst most of the Staines crowd were still making their way back to the stands, pies and jellied-eels (or whatever else it is Londoners ingest) in hand. The Blues’ second of the match was not the prettiest goal ever scored, but netting from a corner is always pleasing. Beattie’s deflected header meant the intrepid City fans who had made the journey down to Staines could breathe a tad easier, at least until Ji So-yun struck the underside of the bar a little later.
With Cushing keen to protect his side’s vital lead, and ensure yet another clean sheet, the improving Asllani was subbed, and Izzy Christiansen made her first competitive start for City this season, since the Liverpool FA Cup match. It’s quite incredible to think that the Blues have made such a great start to this campaign without last year’s PFA Player of the Year, and a fit-again Christiansen terrorising the Super League is sure to make City fans drool. The midfielder’s presence helped the Blues continue to push forward and put pressure on Chelsea, with Parris again trying her luck with just under 25 minutes of normal time left, cutting inside only to fail to test Lindahl. Six minutes later, Chelsea’s Swedish goalie thwarted Parris once more, snuffing out the winger’s shot.
With the clock ticking down in earnest, Chelsea began to throw everything at City. Karen Carney, formerly of the Birmingham parish, rued her luck after seeing her curled chance sail a smidgen wide. With less than ten minutes left, City did have the ball in the back of the Chelsea net once more, this time courtesy of the ever-industrious Parris, only for the offside flag to chalk it off. Bardsley made a brilliant save in injury-time to thwart Chapman, and a Chelsea side that were strangely inaccurate. Yet make no mistake – City were brilliant in Staines on Thursday, giving another impressive account of themselves, against top-class opposition and title rivals to boot.
City’s opening goalscorer told mcfc.co.uk that the Blues’ ability to dig deep and grind out results if necessary this season has been important. ‘It was a good game… Chelsea made it hard for us but we played brilliantly. We showed that we can play both sides – we can get the ball down and we can also play the nitty-gritty side of the game.’ Stokes’ sense of achievement was echoed by her manager, with Cushing telling City’s site about how pleased he was with the Chelsea performance. “I thought we were solid as a rock. I never thought we’d lose. On 70-80 minutes, I really wanted the clean sheet and it shows the players have been working hard in training.’
How long, indeed, can the defence and Bardsley keep clean this run of clean sheets up? City haven’t conceded for over 540 minutes in the league, with two Chelsea cup goals the only ones to breach Bardsley’s net this season. City’s back-line has been consistent so far, with Houghton leading by example as always, Stokes and Bronze getting much joy on the overlap, and Abbie McManus really impressing with her decision-making. Christiansen’s return to the squad may be more eye-catching, but the fact that Ireland defender Megan Campbell is now also fit again means that the Blues have slightly more strength in depth, should they require it.
City’s next match against Liverpool away at Widnes is their last for a month, and to go into the summer break with at least a six point lead at the top is crucial. As Cushing noted to mcfc.co.uk, if City lose at Widnes, ‘…we’ve taken two steps backwards. We have to make sure we turn up, play well and win that game.’ The gaffer also singled out the travelling Blues support, calling the City fans ‘unbelievable’. ‘We just want to keep scoring goals and encouraging the fans to come… To have fans travel to Staines on a Thursday night is exceptional and we want to deliver performances they enjoy.’ Exacting revenge for a cruel FA Cup Semi-Final defeat in such compelling fashion, and extending their lead at the top of the table certainly was enjoyed by all City fans. With the Blues in this kind of ruthless mood, their crowd-pleasing form is sure to continue.
My Player of The Match: I would have gone for Asllani, but she was subbed far too early to justify such an award (‘cos this is the biggie, make no mistake). It’s great to see her get an assist though, and play much more positively. As ever, it’s a toss up between Parris and Stokes, for their determination, heart and industriousness. Given she scored her first for the Blues, Stokes gets it again.
Chelsea Ladies (4-2-3-1): Lindahl; Blundell, Fahey, Flaherty, C Rafferty; Bright (So Yun 52’), Chapman (c); Aluko, Spence (Carney 63’), England (Davison 52’); Kirby.
Unused subs: Spencer, Borges, Bailey, L Rafferty.
Bookings: Spence, Bright
City Women (4-3-3): Bardsley; Bronze, Houghton (c), McManus, Stokes; Scott, Beattie, Asllani (Christiansen 61); Parris, Ross (Stanway 88), Duggan (Corboz 81)
Unused subs: Hourihan, Campbell, Tynan.
N.B. If you know a budding Bronze, mini McManus or pint-sized Parris, get them down to the Academy Trials at the CFA next month. Check out City’s website for more info. Good Luck!