A strong second half performance from Manchester United enabled the Red Devils to record a well-earned point against the defending Barclays FA Women’s Super League champions Chelsea.
The current respective strength in depth of the two sides was evident with a pre-match glance at the team sheets. Chelsea could afford to name Pernille Harder, Beth England, Erin Cuthbert and Hannah Blundell as substitutes. They also welcomed back Carly Telford in goal after injury.
Chelsea dominated possession in the early spells – carefully probing and patiently waiting for spaces to emerge for the killer pass. Jonna Andersson’s ball in was put out by Katie Zelem to give the visitors the first corner after just three minutes, but Guru Reiten’s effort was dealt with comfortably.
It was United that put together the first opportunity with six minutes gone. Jane Ross cut in and rounded Maren Mjelde to loft a shot narrowly wide of Carly Telford’s left hand post.
The home side gradually settled and, whilst offering little as an attacking threat, got a foothold of possession; having a spoiling effect on the freedom Chelsea began with.
Sam Kerr went close for Chelsea just before the twenty minute mark. The Australian took a through ball, muscled between Millie Turner and Kirsty Smith, but her effort was deflected narrowly wide. The resulting corner saw Mary Earps hold Reiten’s effort.
Chelsea got the lead their opening efforts deserved and it was a delightful build up involving three of the Blues key attacking stars after 25 minutes. Ji fed Kirby on the right. The Lioness played in an inch perfect ball in to Kerr to slide in to score a trademark goal.
The Aussie almost added another when she eased away from Zelem and was just centimetres wide with her shot.
United worked hard to reduce Chelsea’s momentum and were generally successful after the half hour mark, but it was a double-edged sword. The home side had more possession but struggled to do anything with it when they approached the final third.
In contrast, Chelsea’s creativity fashioned another impressive move as Kerr popped up in centre midfield and played in Ji who fed Melanie Leupolz. The German international combined with Sophie Ingle and Kirby was then away down the left. The ball in was accurate once more, but slightly higher than Kerr would have liked in order to get a powerful enough header on.
As the first half entered its final stages, Ji combined once more with Sam Kerr. The South Korean lofted in a beautiful inch perfect ball from the left wing right into Kerr’s run down the centre. Earps did well to hold the Matildas captain’s shot.
The final opportunity of the opening forty-five fell to United as Kirsty Hanson’s cross found Leah Galton whose effort came back off of the bar.
Galton fashioned the first chance in the second half having been played in by Ella Toone but the Blues defence snuffed out the danger as they continued their efforts in rapidly closing down any space and opportunity that the Red Devils could create.
Chelsea responded instantly with Guru Reiten on the left combining with Maren Mjelde. The ball in to Sam Kerr was superb, but Kerr, under pressure from Abbie McManus forced her effort over the bar.
United created again when Ona Batlle played in Ella Toone who forced Carly Telford to tip a fierce effort over the bar. The home side continued to build possession with Batlle looking particularly impressive, but United never quite managed to produce the top quality final ball to bother the reigning champions.
Chelsea fashioned a rare second half opportunity when Fran Kirby ran in from the right and played an intelligent ball across the outside of the box to Erin Cuthbert, and the substitute hit her effort against the legs of the onrushing Mary Earps. Seconds later Earps denied Cuthbert again from point blank range after the Scot was teed up by Beth England.
Those missed chances returned to haunt the visitors as United’s efforts were rewarded by levelling with eleven minutes left. Jackie Groenen galloped down the right and played in a beautiful ball for Leah Galton to beat her defender to smash home.
Chelsea responded by bringing on Pernille Harder for Guru Reiten, but United still pushed on. Lauren James’ lovely ball in towards Galton fell between Carly Telford and Maren Mjelde, with the Norwegian forced to turn the ball away for a corner.
The final opportunity fell Chelsea’s way. Harder combined well with Kirby to find Cuthbert who earned a corner. The resulting ball in was headed clear by Millie Turner.
It was a frustrating ending for Chelsea. For much of the afternoon their creative players were able to show their worth against a potential top four opponent and, for the vast majority of the exchanges, their defence also remained well-organised and comfortable. Yet the law of averages proves that you can only defend for so long before one chance goes in.
United competed well with top opposition, but overall they found it tough to consistently produce sufficient quality to turn possession into goal scoring opportunities. If the Red Devils want to break into the top three, they need to develop greater potency and creativity to mix it with the best. If they can get Christen Press and Tobin Heath in on loan in the coming days, it might just be possible.
Manchester United: Earps, Smith, McManus, M. Turner, Batlle, Ladd, Zelem, Hanson, Toone, Galton, Ross.Substitutes: Ramsey (GK), A. Turner, Okvist (for Batlle), Groenen (for Hanson), James (for Ross).
Chelsea: Telford, Bright, Ingle, Leupolz, Ji, Reiten, Kirby, Eriksson, Mjelde, Kerr, Andersson. Substitutes: Orman (GK), Blundell, Carter (for Andersson), England (for Kerr), J. Fleming, Charles, Cuthbert (for Ji), Harder (for Reiten), Spence.
Referee: Kirsty Dowle