Kirby kickstarts Chelsea’s WSL title defence with Manchester City win

Chelsea kickstarted their title defence with a comfortable but not altogether convincing 2-0 win to heap pressure on the Manchester City manager, Gareth Taylor.

It is rare that there is much riding on the second game of the season, but with both Chelsea and City having endured shock defeats on the first weekend, against the newly promoted Liverpool and Aston Villa respectively, suddenly this result mattered more.

The matches between the traditional top three of Arsenal, Chelsea and City have played an important role in determining the outcome of the league. In a 12-team league and 22-game season every point is critical. Last season, Arsenal lost the title by one point, having lost one game all season. Increasingly, though, there are no predictable results in the Women’s Super League.

“That’s the nature of the league, I’ve always been negative about that, 22 games is nothing,” Taylor said. “Unless teams keep beating each other, then you can maybe get away with four defeats in a season and still win the league. So, we can’t do much about that, the rules are the rules, the teams are the teams.”

At a sold-out Kingsmeadow the champions of the past three years began brighter, but they were far from the swaggering side of recent years. This was an open encounter, with neither team able to maintain possession in the way they both like.

The home team should have been ahead within a minute, but Kirby’s return of Sam Kerr’s cutback was a little behind the Australian forward who put her effort wide as a result.

With 12 minutes played, they combined again, with Kerr leaping on the City captain Steph Houghton’s underhit backpass before squaring to Kirby when through one-on-one. Her pass was behind her teammate and Kirby could only get the weakest of shots away, which was blocked. But a lack of cutting edge up top, with Kerr and Kirby particularly profligate, allowed City to maintain a threat, with the striker Bunny Shaw dangerous.

The goal for Chelsea, when it came, was beautiful. Jessie Fleming raced at Houghton, beating her and giving Guro Reiten the ball. The Norwegian cut across goal and Kirby fired in. It was a bruising one-on-one for the former England captain Houghton, who was outpaced under the watchful eye of the Lionesses’ manager, Sarina Wiegman.

City did not look quite as defensively shambolic as they did in their 4-3 defeat against Aston Villa but there was a lack of coherence to their play. If there was a plan of how to get back into the game after they concededthen it was hard to see.

Instead, it was Chelsea who continued to look the more dangerous, with City giving them more and more of the ball in the middle and Lauren James increasingly asserting her physical and technical presence, leaving fans drooling as she weaved towards the edge of the box before forcing a low save from Ellie Roebuck.

Chelsea’s second was less pretty. Sophie Ingle smashed the rebounding ball goalwards following an Erin Cuthbert effort, but it took a deflection off the raised arm of Leila Ouahabi and the referee Abigail Byrne rightly pointed to the spot and Maren Mjelde converted.

“We kept playing ourselves into trouble,” the Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, said. “Second half we adapted, they stopped pressing. We were lucky in the first half, we were a little bit tentative. It looked like two teams who haven’t got momentum in the season.”

For City, the pressure is on. Wholesale changes to the squad cannot be an excuse for long. A lack of answers after conceding will be a worry. The team that was out of the title race before it had begun last term is now already off the pace in the new campaign and for a club with high expectations a non-existent challenge will not be good enough.

“These will be really good players and this will be a really good team,” Taylor said. “Unfortunately, at the moment we’ve had a couple of defeats which is really difficult to take but there are positives to take forward.”