WSL holders Chelsea Women have been playing catch-up all season – but could finally return to the top of the table live on Sky Sports on Wednesday.
The Blues have been on the back foot in the WSL title race since the opening weekend of the season, when the champions kicked off their trophy defence with a surprise 3-2 defeat at Arsenal.
Arsenal, a different force under new manager Jonas Eidevall, have led from the front almost since that day and were near faultless in the opening months of the season, winning eight of their first nine games.
They would have to be at their very best all season to keep that form up, and finally blinked in a surprise 2-0 defeat to bottom side Birmingham in January, a result which sparked a run of one win in five games as their stroll towards the title began to stumble.
Chelsea’s WSL title hopes have been in their own hands since early February, when the Gunners were held by Manchester United, while the title rivals’ goalless draw at Kingsmeadow later that month kept the race for the trophy on a knife-edge.
On Wednesday, they can finally take advantage as they bid to top the table for the first time this season against London rivals Tottenham, live on Sky Sports Premier League, with Arsenal away on European duties facing Wolfsburg – ironically enough, the same side who ended Chelsea’s Champions League campaign in December.
“They have the title mathematically in their hands, if they win all their games there’s nothing Arsenal can do about it. It’s all on Chelsea – it’s going to be a close one,” Daily Telegraph women’s football reporter Tom Garry told Inside the WSL.
“Arsenal won’t read too much into it if Chelsea do go top, both teams know where they are. They just have to keep on winning – they know Chelsea have a tougher run-in, they know Chelsea have to play Tottenham twice, and host Manchester United on the final day of the season.
“Both teams will be quite happy with where they are, but it’s in Chelsea’s hands and we have seen them go on winning runs – they have got the experience to finish the job. I think you would rather be where Chelsea are, particularly as Arsenal have the two legs coming up against Wolfsburg in Europe.”
Reiten: To pip Arsenal to title ‘would mean everything’
Chelsea’s all-action versatile midfielder Guro Reiten, who has featured in all but one of their 16 WSL games so far, will make her 50th appearance in the competition on Wednesday if she features in Hayes’ line-up.
If she does, and Chelsea go on to win, she will become the joint-most successful player in WSL history from their first 50 games, with 39 wins. No other Blues player has achieved this feat, with the current record holders, Lia Walti and Vivianne Miedema, both of an Arsenal persuasion.
That success could still count for nothing on the domestic front this season should Chelsea lose out in the title race, and the Norweigan is desperate to make sure she completes a hat-trick of WSL winners’ medals come the end of the season.
She told Sky Sports: “It would mean everything after the season we have had, with the Champions League which we don’t talk much about but we want to win the league title, there’s the FA Cup too, and we lost the Continental Cup final.
“Sometimes when you lose, you realise how much you want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We’ve had that feeling twice this year, and we’ve got to show we’ve learned from it and win the rest of the games this season.”
Arsenal back with a north London derby bang
After visiting Chelsea, Tottenham find themselves on the road again on Saturday to face the other title hopeful for the WSL crown, when they travel to Meadow Park for a north London derby with Arsenal.
While on paper the Gunners should emerge victorious, they needed a last-minute Vivianne Miedema goal to earn them a point in the reverse fixture in November, proving anything can happen when there’s a local rivalry on the line.
Even with three points on Saturday, they could still end the weekend off the top of the table again, with Chelsea facing Leicester – second bottom in the table – the following day.
Whatever happens by the end of the weekend is unlikely to be fatal in the title race for either side, but with Arsenal still fighting on two fronts with their European exploits, and the potential of two more games to disrupt the home straight of their season should they navigate their way past Wolfsburg.
Garry said: “If they get through, you’re looking at two more games in April and the start of May, right in the crucial part of the run-in. Any semi-final would be more of a distraction for their title hopes, and in the meantime Chelsea will be focusing on their own league games, including that really important game in hand.”
Who has the tougher run-in?
After facing Tottenham on Saturday, Arsenal do not come up against another side in the top five in the final four games of the season – with a trip to West Ham on the final day of the campaign their toughest game on paper.
Although Chelsea face a Birmingham side who have only picked up four points all season among their remaining six matches, they also have to host Manchester United in their last game, with Marc Skinner’s team still in the hunt, as things stand, for a place in next season’s Champions League.
Should that remain the case come May 8, it may make the Blues’ challenge all the tougher in such a tightly fought race at the top.
Carney: Hayes ‘constantly evolving’ as a manager
Chelsea have switched from a 4-2-3-1 which led them to the 2020/21 WSL title to a 3-4-3 for this season, in the process keeping their destiny in their own hands despite their tactical shift.
Former Blues midfielder Karen Carney told a WSL Special this month the move had showcased Hayes’ evolution as a manager, as she looked to adapt Chelsea’s style to best cope with the challenges of retaining the league title.
She said: “She’s constantly evolving, and usually takes trends from the men’s game into her own teams. They have evolved from a four to a three at the back, pushing players a lot further forward.
“Their possession has been a lot better than last season. They are giving the ball away seven times fewer per game, which might not seem a lot but when the margins are so small, that can lose you points.
“It’s bodies going forward, and their style has changed. They have had to change; when you are the champions, teams defend differently, and want to stop you differently.”
Can Man City get back into top three?
Manchester City endured a tough start to the season, losing four of their opening seven games including a 5-0 pummelling by Arsenal and dropping as low as ninth in the WSL table in the early weeks of the campaign.
That marked a far cry from last season’s WSL, where City ended a single point off winners Chelsea in the final standings and went into the last weekend of the season knowing a favourable set of results would see them crowned champions.
But despite their early setbacks, the club has stuck by Gareth Taylor and seen him lead his side to seven wins from their last nine league games, lifting them back up to fourth and three points off city rivals Manchester United in third.
They will move level on points with Marc Skinner’s side in midweek if they can win their game in hand against Everton, a team besieged by a season of instability and stuck ninth in the table, on Wednesday night – and who they thrashed 4-0 in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Sunday.
Should they end the season inside the top three, they will secure a spot in the first round of next season’s Champions League which would have looked barely possible at the turn of the year.