A new year brought the same old Chelsea, as Emma Hayes’ side defeated one of the top teams in England, keeping them within two points of league leaders Manchester City, who remain perfect on the season. A record crowd was on hand to witness the Blues’ 3-2 triumph over Arsenal — are you watching, men’s team? — with 2,570 roaring fans having bought a ticket for the rivals’ clash at Kingsmeadow on Sunday afternoon.
Chelsea took the lead twice, on goals from Maren Mjelde and Ji So-Yun. Arsenal equalized twice, on goals from Vivianne Miedema and Dominique Janssen. But Chelsea found a winner in the waning moments of the game, thanks in no small part to newcomer Jonna Andersson. The speedy Swede, who just joined the club on December 29th, had a shot ricochet off the post, onto the unfortunate Arsenal goalkeeper, and into the back of the net with just ten minutes left in regulation.
Hayes reverted to the 3-5-2, with Ji dropping into midfield to support the dynamic duo of Fran Kirby and Ramona Bachmann. Crystal Dunn, who had been on a tear with goals and assists before the break, was a surprise omission in favor of the more experienced Gemma Davison, while Magdalena Eriksson rejoined the back five at her usual post of left center back and Hedwig Lindahl took up her regular sport between the sticks. New signings Anita Asante and Andersson stayed warm with Carney, Aluko, Cuthbert, and backup goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer on the subs bench.
A bright and open first few minutes saw Kirby fail to turn a loose ball from a free kick into a real chance, while at the other end Gilly Flaherty intervened excellently to shut down the pacy Miedema running on a counter.
The game settled into a more predictable pattern after the first ten minutes, with the balance of play favoring the home side and Chelsea forcing three saves from Sari Van Veenendaal in just as many minutes, one more spectacular than the next. Kirby, Ji, and Bachmann were possibly starting to wonder what they’d have to do to get a goal, especially as at the other end, Miedema smacked a shot off the frame of the goal. Chelsea may have dominated possession, but Arsenal had plenty of bite on their counters.
Finally, a Ramona Bachmann set piece led to the first crack in the dam around the 23rd minute. Hannah Blundell won a free kick on the right flank, and Bachmann’s ball in found the head of Ji, who rattled the woodwork. The ensuing rebound was rocketed back onto the post by Flaherty, and finally scrambled across the line by an onrushing Mjelde. The lead was there, but there was a sense that it was thin and frail and would need bolstering before any relief could be felt.
The goal did not change the pattern of play, with Arsenal looking to hit on the counter as Chelsea continued to dominate possession. On 30 minutes, Kirby was looking like she’d reached a new level of unmarkable and she turned her defender, smashing the ball goal-ward but straight at Van Veenendaal. Ji was doing her part as well, putting two shots on target as the half wound down. Arsenal were defending well, however.
The second half opened with a flurry of aggression from Arsenal, indicating the fiery talk new manager Joe Montemurro must have given at the break. Lindahl was called upon twice in a span of four minutes, but not unexpectedly she produced outstanding saves to deny the visitors an equalizer.
Unfortunately, the pressure proved to be too much eventually for the Chelsea defense. A poorly hit cross in the 55th minute got beyond the central defenders and found its way to the feet of Miedema, who had just managed to prod the ball past the Chelsea goalkeeper. It was the second in two and third in five games for the former Bayern Munich striker, who is finding her feet in England; and that could spell danger for the rest of the WSL.
The setback only served to reinvigorate Chelsea however. Redoubling their efforts, the Ladies caused havoc for about five minutes before eventually and ironically catching Arsenal with a break of their own on the hour mark. It all started with Kirby, who once again turned her defender and funneled the ball wide to spring the counter. The ensuing cross wound up with Ji, who fired in a low shot that crept through the legs of a defender and into the net.
Chelsea were unfortunately forced into the first change at that point, as Davison had to be withdrawn due to injury. Recent addition Andersson came on to see out the last half hour, but Chelsea’s narrow lead barely made it three minutes let alone 30. Arsenal’s Jordan Nobbs put in a good corner that lead to further goal-mouth chaos. In the debacle, a saved header and a smacked post preceded Dominique Janssen’s equalizer.
Once again, Chelsea surged back, and Maren Mjelde would’ve gotten her brace were it not for the brilliance of Van Veenendaal. Arsenal responded, then Chelsea surged and so it continued back and forth, with the match also growing increasingly more physical, chippy, and foul-laden.
Both teams were looking for a hero; Chelsea found theirs. It all started with a bit of trouble at the back, with Lindahl having to come out of her area for a last gasp intervention on an Arsenal counter. The clearance found its way to Hannah Blundell however and the ball was worked over to Andersson, who threw herself into the attack with all the vim and vigor of a debutant. Her strike went across the diving goalkeeper, came off the post, then tumbled off Van Veenendaal and into her own net. An own goal; we’ll take it just the same!
Four more substitutions, two by either side, ensured that Chelsea were able to take the tempo out of the game, and see out the result in a professional and controlled manner. When the whistle blew, Chelsea temporary ascended to the top of the WSL table.
City smashed Reading 5-2 later that day, which restored them back into top position. They will be next up for the Blues, in the semifinals of the WSL Cup, in what will the first meeting this season between the two favorites for both league and cup.
That should certainly be a good one, so be sure to tune in on Sunday for that (14:00 GMT). In the meantime, keep the blue flag flying high.
Chelsea (3-5-2): Lindahl; Bright, Flaherty, Eriksson; Blundell, Mjelde, Ji (Spence 87), Chapman (c), Davison (Andersson 60); Kirby, Bachmann (Cuthbert 87)
Arsenal (4-1-2-3): Van Veenendaal; Evans, Rose (James 86), Williamson, Mitchell; Janssen; Nobbs (c), Van de Donk; Carter, Miedema, Mead (McCabe 86)