It was fitting that this fixture between last season’s top two in the WSL landed on International Day of the Girl and the Blues warmed up ahead of kick-off in t-shirts showing our support for our official global charity partner Plan International’s Listen To Girls campaign, to help protect girls’ safety online.
When the action got underway, our starting line-up showed five changes from the side that beat Arsenal so convincingly in our Continental League Cup opener in midweek. Carly Telford, Maria Thorisdottir, Sophie Ingle, Niamh Charles and Guro Reiten made way for Ann-Katrin Berger, Mjelde, Melanie Leupolz, Cuthbert and Kirby.
Pernille Harder and Kerr were among the six to maintain their place in the team and they linked up well as a strike pairing in the early stages of this contest, as Hayes’ selection showed plenty of attacking intent with two attacking wide players plus the creative talents of Ji So-Yun offering support. Leupolz was nominally the deepest midfielder, protecting a back four of Mjelde, Millie Bright, Magda Eriksson and Jonna Andersson.
The first 20 minutes of this contest played out exactly as one would expect a fixture between two evenly matched and highly skilled opponents such as these – the archetypal ‘cagey opening’ and ‘feeling out process’ that comes with games of this magnitude was on display for the stand-out WSL meeting of the weekend.
Those who can appreciate the defensive side were treated to masterclasses at both ends of the field, as Eriksson snuffed out a bright City attack through Ellen White by reading the play and stepping out at precisely the right moment, before Lucy Bronze responded in kind with an athletic retreat to halt a promising break for Harder.
Aside from a pot shot here and there, neither goalkeeper had much to do until Sam Mewis gave Berger cause for concern midway through the first half. The USA international fired a low shot from outside the box that beat the dive of our keeper but, fortunately for those of a Chelsea persuasion, bounced back off the post rather than nestling in the bottom corner.
With so little between the teams, the importance of set-piece situations increases – and that is how the deadlock was broken with just under 10 minutes to go before half-time. Kirby’s determination down the right-hand side forced a corner, which was eventually played out to Cuthbert for a strike from outside the box. The Scot got plenty behind it and the ball appeared to hit a City hand and deflect away to safety.