1st October…it marks the beginning of autumn and today it marks the beginning of the Women’s Super League 2023/24 season. With hybrid Chelsea-Spurs scarfs floating, flags waving, and club shirts on show, excitement was brewing several hours before the match started as Chelsea and Spurs fans alike made their way to Stamford bridge for the London Derby.
Emma Hayes, six time WSL title holder, handed two newcomers Mia Fishel and Sjoeke Nusken their first starts in Chelsea blue today. Whilst Spurs new head coach Robert Vilahamn’s starting XI featured four new signings with Luana Buhler, Grace Clinton, Olga Ahtinen and Thomas all making their debuts.
You could hear a pin drop in Stamford Bridge, as a minutes silence was observed ahead of kick off in memory of Sheffield United player Maddy Cusack who died recently. Players, managers, club staff and fans all stood to observe the minutes silence.
A quick shake of the hands between Molly Bartrip and new Chelsea captain Millie Bright, a nod from the referee and the first game of the 2023/24 WSL season for Spurs and Chelsea was underway. With a crowd of 14,776 and plenty of noise, both teams started with bursts of new season energy, with Chelsea pressing high and putting pressure on Spurs, and in turn Spurs pushing back to earn an early corner. With an unmatched atmosphere in the home stadium, it was no surprise that the first few chances of the game came for Chelsea with Guro Reiten and Niamh Charles controlling the attack. A corner from Reiten saw a close call for Spurs even though Celin Bizet Ildhusoy managed to get her head on the end of it. Only moments after, the game turned on its head as the hosts saw themselves having to defend as Spurs debutant Martha Thomas was through on goal down the other side of the pitch, however it was an easy goal for the well-tenured Chelsea keeper, Zecira Musovic to save.
The next ten minutes saw some absolutely beautiful play from Guro Reiten and Lauren James as Reiten back heeled the ball to James who narrowly missed the top right hand corner of the Spurs net. Down the other side of the pitch, Grace Clinton had a chance on goal after Jess Carter lost the ball to Ildhusoy, but saw it go wide of the bottom right corner as she faced pressure from Chelsea captain Millie Bright and Maren Mjelde.
New signing Sjoeke Nusken held the possession for Chelsea in the midfield, acting as buffer between Niamh Charles and Guro Reiten who dominated the left flank. Another chance for Chelsea created by Lauren James with the through ball to Niamh Charles made it look too easy, but Charles was taken out by Ashleigh Neville and the ball went out for a corner. The corner saw Nusken get her head on the end of it, but it went straight into the hands of Becky Spencer who didn’t need to put much of a shift in to make the save.
With the absence of Sam Kerr, who is often the focal point of the Chelsea attack, the Blues did not struggle to create chances throughout the first half. Just on the half an hour mark, one of those chances was realised after debutant Mia Fishel headed home from the centre of the box into the bottom right corner. With Chelsea flags flying all around the stadium and blue is the colour being played on the speaker, Fishel couldn’t have wished for a better debut. In her post match interview she said that scoring on her debut for Chelsea was “a dream come true”.
After the first goal of the day, things at the bridge stilled a bit. However, despite Chelsea’s formidable record of winning after scoring first, Spurs continued to put a shift in and had the travelling fans on their feet when Drew Spence made a slick pass putting Martha Thomas in behind forcing Zecira Musovic to make a much needed save. Lauren James’ world class skill was on full show under the lights at Stamford Bridge as she dribbled round the Spurs players like child’s play and narrowly missed another chance in the bottom right corner and another soon after which went straight into the hands of Becky Spencer. With four minutes of added time, the first half ended with a score line of 1-0 to the host team.
HALF TIME: Chelsea 1-0 Spurs
Some Chelsea fans might have been thinking that today was just not Lauren James’ day after several of her first half chances narrowly missed their target. However, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. Only six minutes into the second half of the London Derby, Lauren James finally scored to double Chelsea’s lead. James finally hit home a goal that had been brewing for a while. There was some confusion inside the stadium when Reiten hit a shot that trailed a few inches over the goal line just seconds before Lauren James scored, earning screams from the Chelsea fans that it had crossed the line, however with Lauren James’ confirmed goal only seconds later, the screams eventually turned from negative shouts to cheers from the Chelsea fans.
Chelsea definitely started the second half off fiercely and after Chelsea doubled their lead early into the second half, Spurs became subdued for a bit. However, with a sudden burst of energy, and some stern words from Robert Vilahamn, his Spurs team made two successive shots on target from Grace Clinton and Ashleigh Neville which saw Zecira Musovic having to show her skill and make two tricky saves.
In the 58th minute, the hosts were the first team to make substitutions with Johanna Rytting Kaneryd and debutant Sjoeke Nusken making way for Melanie Leupolz and Fran Kirby. The substitution was an interesting attacking change from manager Emma Hayes, but one that was welcomed massively from Chelsea fans with ‘SUPER SUPER FRAN’ echoing around the stadium. With Fran Kirby sidelined for the majority of last season with a knee injury, Chelsea fans were thrilled to see her back in action. Especially because within one minute back on the pitch as a Blue, Kirby won a free kick on the right wing, however the attempt by Reiten was blocked.
Shortly after Reiten’s free kick, Robert Vilahamn made his first substitutions as Spurs manager when he took off Olga Ahtinen and Drew Spence for Asmita Ale and Jessica Naz. Although the second Chelsea goal knocked the wind out of Spurs a bit, the substitutions seemed to put it back in. Five minutes after the subs were made, Musovic failed to collect an effort from Grace Clinton, which Martha Thomas took full advance of, whacking the ball into the back of the net to make the score 2-1 with only 15 minutes of normal time to go. It was a scrappy, messy goal but the Spurs fans (and I dare say debutant Martha Thomas) definitely weren’t complaining as they’d argue it was fully deserved.
Scoring their first goal of this WSL season put some fire in Spurs who started to give Chelsea’s defence a bit of trouble, their high press pushing Chelsea back and proving effective as substitute Jessica Naz saw her fine effort force Musovic to make a clever save. Spurs’ new found life wasn’t enough to get a goal past the Chelsea wall but it was enough for Emma Hayes to make another tactical change, substituting Guro Reiten and goal scorer Lauren James for Jessie Fleming and Ashley Lawrence.
Another two attempts from Spurs’ by Martha Thomas and substitute Jessica Naz fell short of being a goal after one went wide left and one saved in front of the goal, respectively. With Spurs fighting to get back in the game, and with only five minutes of normal time left, Emma Hayes took off veteran Maren Mjelde for Jelena Cankovic. The final ten minutes was end-to-end at times as Chelsea looked to put the game to bed, whereas Spurs fought to get a point from the game. There was some lovely play from both sides as Fran Kirby sent Ashleigh Neville around the houses and sent a cross into the box which substitute Melanie Leopolz took in the air. It’s a shame it went over the bar if only because of it’s daring brilliance.
With seven minutes of added time announced, Robert Vilahamn looked to make his final substitution of the evening, taking Grace Clinton off for Kit Graham. However, there was nothing in it for either side in added time as the London Derby drew to an end, the final score line reading 2-1 to Chelsea. Spurs ended both halves arguably the better team but on the whole, Chelsea were more clinical and sharp with their chances.
FULL TIME: Chelsea 2-1 Spurs
Emma Hayes’ praise of Niamh Charles in the post-match conference was certainly not unfounded. Playing in her preferred position on the left, Charles was arguably the best Chelsea player on the pitch, dominating the left flank throughout. Despite not scoring herself, Charles assisted both goals and was a constant threat on the ball, managing to skip past her marker with ease. For Spurs, the player that stood out to me the most was debutant and goal scorer, Martha Thomas. In the absence of Spurs captain and beloved forward, Bethany England who is currently out with an ACL injury, Thomas showed that her positional sense in the six yard box and her attacking instincts can put her at the forefront of Spurs’ front line and definitely as one to watch for the coming season.
It was a blissful day at the bridge for Emma Hayes’ Blues as they won 2-1 in the London Derby to Robert Vilahamn’s Spurs side. At the end of the match, the Chelsea players presented Emma Hayes with a shit with ‘Papa’ on the back in memory of her dad who passed away last week. With this being the first win on the first day of the season for Chelsea in a long time, some might say that perhaps Hayes’ dad wasn’t as far away as they might think. Either way, Hayes will be pleased with a solid start to their 2023/24 campaign. For Spurs, despite not being on the right side of the score line, they should be very happy and encouraged with their very promising first game of the season performance and Robert Vilahamn has a lot of positives that he can head back to North London with.
GOAL SCORERS: Mia Fisher (2x), Lauren James (51), Martha Thomas (76)