Chelsea won the battle of the top two in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League as they condemned Manchester United to their first defeat of the season at Kingsmeadow and went top of the table in the process.
The two teams went into the match as the only unbeaten FAWSL sides this season, but in the end the difference was a defensive error which allowed the in-form Fran Kirby to settle matters.
United started impressively on the front foot, clearly settling into a pressing game from the start.
Despite this, it was Chelsea who came closest after three minutes. Ji found Fran Kirby who released Sam Kerr. The Australian star drove into the box, took the ball away from Millie Turner and fired in an effort which Mary Earps did well to get a foot to.
Shortly afterwards, Kirby and Kerr combined again with the Matildas star set free into the box, but she fired wide.
A breathless opening period continued as USNWT star Christen Press was played through for United but just ruled offside after the Chelsea defence quickly stepped up.
Kirby and Kerr combined brilliantly twice more in quick succession. First, the Lioness found Kerr again after a run down the left. Kerr got ahead of Millie Turner and hit a shot which looked to be deflected wide but no corner was awarded.
Almost immediately afterwards, the pair combined again to produce a glorious opportunity for Kerr, but as Earps advanced she hit it wide. So many great chances before the twenty minute mark for Chelsea and all went begging. Would the champions ultimately rue these missed opportunities?
United hit back well when Kirsty Hanson got clear down the right and put in a great cross. Millie Bright’s attempted clearance only succeeded in allowing Christen Press to get a shot away which rolled narrowly wide of the post.
Chelsea finally took one of their chances when Kirby got into the box and got a shot away that Earps blocked at the expense of a corner. Cuthbert’s flag kick came in. Millie Bright’s header was cleared off the line by the head of Amy Turner, Kirby’s follow up effort came back off the post into the path of Pernille Harder who couldn’t miss and Chelsea had the lead.
United responded creditably and Galton played a lovely ball wide to Hanson who now popped up on the left hand flank. She glided past Maren Mjelde and played in Ella Toone whose effort deflected into the path of Press but Berger blocked the effort before the offside flag went up.
Galton once more created for the visitors. This time down the right, earning a corner with five minutes of the half left, but Magda Eriksson headed clear.
United continued to build as Press found Toone who played a lovely ball behind to Hanson who slid an effort round Ann-Katrin Berger into the net, but assistant referee Sian Massey Ellis had her flag up once more.
With a minute to go before the break, Harder drove through the midfield and got a fierce shot away which swirled and Earps grabbed at the second attempt.
The second half opened in a slightly more cagey fashion and was slightly moving in United’s favour. Casey Stoney had clearly taken an opportunity to tighten up and reduce the creativity of Chelsea’s attacks.
Stoney also brough on Lauren James and her injection of skill earned her side a leveller. Maren Mjelde’s headed clearance fell to Kirsty Smith who found Leah Galton and then Ella Toone. Smith took charge again and played in James who turned and curled a magnificent effort into the bottom right hand corner of the net.
Chelsea were nudged out of their second half slumber and formulated an instant reply when Sam Kerr turned Ona Batlle and hit a shot which Mary Earps pushed away with a one handed diving save.
Seconds later a defensive lapse saw the centre back pairing of Amy Turner and Millie Turner fail to deal with a long ball through which they allowed to run through Fran Kirby. The Chelsea hot-shot ruthlessly punished United by hitting a shot across Earps into the far corner and just four minutes after being pegged back, the champions were back in front.
With eighteen minutes to go, the hugely impressive James conjured up another opportunity for United. She danced her way into the box and fired a left footed effort just past the far post.
Towards the end, an unnecessary foul from Leupolz in the centre of the pitch allowed James to scamper away down the left again but United frustratingly conceded possession with Toone adjudged to have put in a high boot.
Chelsea: Berger, Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson, Andersson, Leupolz, Ji Kirby, Harder, Cuthbert, Kerr. Substitutes:Blundell, Ingle England, Reiten, Fleming, Charles, Spence, Telford (GK).
Scorers: Harder 30, Kirby 65.
Manchester United: Earps, Batlle, A. Turner, M. Turner, Smith, Ladd, Groenen, Hanson, Toone, Galton, Press. Substitutes: Harris, McManus, Sigsworth, Zelem, Fuso, James, Ross, Bentley (GK), Heath.
Scorers: James 61.
Referee: Rebecca Welch.