“They made the game interesting for everyone at home,” Emma Hayes reflected at a snow-laden Kingsmeadow on Sunday, perfectly encapsulating the undercurrent of this year’s intriguing Women’s Super League title hunt.
A moment of weakness, followed by a flash of panic. Two goals conceded in 84 short seconds.
Chelsea were already leading Reading by three, but that detracts from the point. The two sequences were exposing. A fascinating peak under the Chelsea hood.
Millie Bright attempted a scuffed clearance, Magda Eriksson got sidestepped, all before Ann-Katrin Berger allowed the ball to squirm beneath her. Uncharacteristically sloppy.
The very next phase, another Reading attack, was more revealing still. Niamh Charles got bypassed, Sophie Ingle became dragged towards the ball, as Eriksson’s outstretched leg was powerless to prevent a strike going in via the inside of Berger’s post.
“Cheap goals,” they were labelled by Hayes. Similar in design but proportionately careless.
Negligence is not often an accusation levelled at Chelsea. Hayes’ charges are well-coached and well-drilled. Meticulous, even. But not on this occasion. “As a team we were complacent,” Hayes conceded.
Complacency is a title-chasing sides kryptonite. If it creeps in, and manages to take hold, it can derail an entire campaign in one fell swoop.
That’s not to suggest Chelsea have hit self-destruct, far from it. But there are signs that the Blues are not entirely invincible. That’s to say, they have faint, but discernible, weaknesses.
The fact that third-bottom club Reading were able to force two identical entries against the division’s frontrunners, in such a blasé manner, suggests they too have soft spots.
Perhaps that argument, in isolation, ignores the wider context which is that Chelsea came through that Reading scare to cement their status at the top of the WSL table – a position they will hold over the Christmas break.
But if that enthralling 84 seconds of football has taught us anything, it’s that this season’s title pursuit is intriguingly wide-open. More so than it has been in years.
Chelsea were the biggest winners when Manchester United prevailed over Arsenal in late November. The standout result in the first half of the season. Chelsea took care of business against Leicester that weekend, as United stole a march on Arsenal to stun a record-breaking crowd inside the Emirates. Case in point.
That result was a head-turner – announcing United as part of a four-horse race. So, we have Chelsea, with their noses in front, followed by Arsenal, United and then Manchester City.
That grouping is unsurprising, but as the season meanders towards its midway point, the eventual order of that four-team alliance is enjoyably up for debate. There is no impenetrable force. No runaway winner. And plenty of scope for interchange.
Here Sky Sports reporter Anton Toloui assesses the current runners and riders…
A lot has been made of Chelsea’s “vulnerabilities” after conceding two goals against Reading after going three-up but did anyone really ever doubt they’d win the game? Hayes is back on the touchline, players are signing long-term contracts and they have the deepest squad in the league. They’re back-to-back-to-back champions and on a nine-game winning streak. They remain favourites for a very good reason.
Does anyone actually know how good Arsenal are? They have the meanest defence in the league even without Leah Williamson and Raffaele Souza for long periods and yet we still aren’t talking about Arsenal as an unstoppable force. A large part of that is down to missing two of the league’s very best in Kim Little and Beth Mead. But let’s be honest – has the ‘Midfielder Miedema’ plan worked? Figuring out this question could be the difference between a good and a great season.
What is Marc Skinner planning this January? United’s head coach has teased potential signings this window but will they be of the calibre to turn this team into title winners?
Skinner knows the US market well from his time at Orlando Pride and there are some very, very good free agents available but can any of them make a big impact quickly after the NWSL season ended a month ago? The biggest signatures United can secure in 2023 are soon-to-be out-of-contract pair Alessia Russo and Ona Battle.
Gareth Taylor insists Manchester City are still in the title race despite an, at times, underwhelming performance against Manchester United on Sunday.
Chelsea only dropped ten points during the entirety of last season, Man City have already dropped eight and there are 13 games to go. No major signings are expected at City in January, so it’s all on Taylor to go unbeaten until the end of the season by developing the players he has.
Never mind looking for their first WSL title since 2016, City are outside the Champions League places at Christmas for the second year running. Last year they turned it around, but this year the competition is even stronger at the top.
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