The most highly anticipated game of the FAWSL’s opening weekend saw a clash of two title hopefuls in the Champions League finalists and defending champions, Chelsea, and last year’s third-placed team, Arsenal. Held at the Emirates and broadcast on Sky Sports, the game truly set the standard for where women’s football deserves to be, serving up a spectacle befitting the quality of the two sides.
Arsenal came into the game with a rejuvenated squad following a number of summer additions including seasoned internationals Manu Iwabuchi and Frida Maanum, with a new manager in Jonas Eidevall to boot. In contrast, Chelsea have felt little need to add to a squad that achieved so much last season with Emma Hayes at the helm.
Hayes sprung somewhat of a surprise with her line-up, opting to leave the Kerr/Kirby duo on the bench in favour of players who’d enjoyed a more complete pre-season. Instead, it would be Arsenal’s duopoly of Mead and Miedema who would have the greatest impact on the match.
The home side started the game well, spurred on by the home fans in attendance, a start that allowed them to take the lead, with the provider, predictably, Vivianne Miedema?
A pass down the left from last season’s top assister, Katie McCabe, enabled Miedema to make a surging run in behind the Chelsea defence. In this position no one would bet against the Dutch all-time top goal scorer and, with the unexpected always in her locker, she cut inside, which opened up the opportunity to aim for the far-post either as a shot or into the path of Mead.
Instead, she fooled us all and fired the ball in at the near post to beat Berger and create the perfect start for the Gunners after just 13 minutes.
The pressing instilled by new manager, Eidevall, was clear for all to see as Arsenal consistently did well in creating turnovers high up the pitch in the opening exchanges.
If the Emirates had been lit up by the first 45 minutes of action, the second half saw it engulfed
But it was when these turnovers weren’t made that Arsenal looked exposed. Increasing pressure from Chelsea and a succession of errors from the Arsenal defence made a leveller look increasingly likely.
Sure enough, with just two minutes of the first half remaining, Chelsea got their breakthrough as the home side allowed them too much space. Cuthbert was clinical when she found herself unmarked on the right of the goal, slotting the ball home with precision at the far-post.
This game did not let up after an enthralling first half with both sides’ attacking intent plain to see. If the Emirates had been lit up by the first 45 minutes of action, the second half saw it engulfed.
The tone was set within a minute of the restart as Chelsea’s Reiten hit the bar with an attempted cross, coming within centimetres of putting the Blues ahead.
But instead it was Arsenal who took the advantage again as Miedema turned creator as she threaded a ball past a number of blue shirts to allow Mead in behind the defence. With work to do, she surged left to create an angle before firing a thundering effort across the goal and thudding into the Chelsea keeper’s towel. 2-1 to the Gunners.
It was evident that it would take more than a one-goal lead to keep this Chelsea side at bay. Luckily for Arsenal, Mead was not finished.
Chelsea’s defence could not withstand the quick passing movements of the Arsenal front line and it was a flowing move down the right that saw them concede again in quick succession. Just 11 minutes after Mead’s first, Arsenal skipper, Kim Little, initiated an attack which went through Miedema and on to Iwabuchi.
Despite their dubious goal, Arsenal deservedly came away with the three points
It was the dreaded ball in behind from the Japanese international that penetrated the Chelsea defence yet again, allowing Mead to get away and round the keeper before coolly passing into the goal. The brilliance was undoubtable, but the legitimacy was.
Mead was certainly offside when Iwabuchi made the pass and Hayes has subsequently made her feelings on the need for VAR in the women’s game abundantly clear.
This can only have been made harder for Chelsea to accept when they scored their second of the game just four minutes later. Their persistent aerial threat paid off as Harder nodded home from a Cuthbert cross in the 64th minute.
This signalled the moment for Arsenal fans to start watching from behind the sofa as Chelsea piled on the pressure and introduced perhaps one of the scariest sights in football: a triple substitution to bring on Kerr, Kirby and Ingle.
Spurred on by the home crowd Arsenal somehow managed to grit their teeth and maintain their 3-2 advantage with some stoic and inspired defending from Arsenal born and bred Leah Williamson. There were even chances for an Arsenal fourth such was the attacking intent from both sides.
Despite their dubious goal, Arsenal deservedly came away with the three points. Impassioned full-time celebrations from players, coach and fans alike showed just what it meant to achieve their first win over Chelsea in six attempts.
The title defence has not got off to the ideal start for Hayes’ side, but you can expect these two sides to be battling for the title all the way. This WSL season is not one to be missed.