Chelsea took advantage of all other FA Women’s Super League teams being on the side-lines to close the gap on Manchester United at the top of the table to three points in addition to holding a game in hand and having superior goal difference over United after a comfortable win over Reading at the Madejski Stadium.
Emma Hayes’ side went into the game with Guro Reiten back in her influential midfield spot with Beth England, Ji and Pernille Harder forming part of an astonishingly strong bench with, perhaps an eye on next Sunday’s showdown with Manchester United.
Reading had plenty of possession in the earliest of the initial exchanges before Fran Kirby began to spark the visitors into attack.
With five minutes played, Melanie Leupolz stole possession from Angharad James and played in Kirby who in turn fed Sam Kerr. The Matildas superstar could have had a shot, but laid a ball off for Kirby which the hosts cleared for a corner.
Four minutes later, Kirby showed her influence again down the left and once more found Kerr, but the Australian’s shot was not powerful enough and easily blocked.
There was a glimmer of hope for Reading just before the quarter hour mark after Reiten gave away a free kick centrally outside the box, but Fara Williams’ weak effort went well wide.
Shortly afterwards, Reading were punished after a superb solo finish from Fran Kirby. A long ball through was flicked on beautifully by Kerr into the path of Kirby who was in acres of space. The former Royal rounded Grace Moloney and hit the ball into the net with ease. It was a deserved goal for a player in dominant form.
Kirby’s magic start to the game almost led to a second goal on twenty-two minutes. Jonna Andersson charged down the left and found Kirby in acres of space but the effort came back off of the woodwork.
Seconds later there was no stopping the Chelsea hot shot. She easily won a battle against Emma Mitchell and held off the former Arsenal defender to hit a shot across Moloney for her second of the afternoon.
Just before the half-hour mark, Reading came close when James played in Tash Harding who saw Ann-Katrin Berger off her line and lofted a great effort only to see it bounce narrowly wide.
The Royals did a good job in taking the sting out of Chelsea by trying to maintain a patient passing game around the half hour mark, but the home side’s downfall was an inability to maintain that possession in an attacking sense.
An example of poor control of the ball in an attacking position by Reading almost let in Chelsea for a third goal on thirty-six minutes as Kerr broke free and looked to be in a great position to shoot, but squared for Kirby which allowed the Royals to clear.
As the half entered its closing stages, Chelsea pressed. Andersson was found by Reiten on the left and played in a glorious curling cross towards Niamh Charles which Moloney dealt with.
Then, a glorious inch perfect ball from Sophie Ingle found Charles on the right. The former Liverpool player beat Lily Woodham and laid a pass back for Kirby in the box, but Jess Fishlock cleared.
Right on the half-time whistle, Kirby grabbed her hat-trick goal which she so richly deserved for an outstanding performance.
Fara Williams gave away a free-kick and received a yellow card for her pains. Erin Cuthbert floated the resulting set-piece to the back post to Kerr. The East Fremantle born striker lofted the ball back to Kirby who was unmarked in the six yard box and she nodded home with ease. Reading keeper Grace Moloney protested that the ball was out of play when Kerr played the cross in and received a yellow card as a result.
Fran Kirby was in on goal within three minutes of the re-start and was denied by a sensational tackle from Jess Fishlock. Moments later, Sam Kerr was agonisingly close when Erin Cuthbert found Kirby who played a lovely ball in but the Australian put her header just wide of the left hand post.
Chelsea earned a corner on fifty-two minutes after a quick counter attack. Originally, a poor clearance from Ann-Katrin Berger fell straight to Lauren Bruton, but the visitors regained possession and drove up the left wing. Kerr got in behind and earned a corner. The flag kick was met with another thumping header from Kirby for hers and Chelsea’s fourth with questionable marking once more from Reading.
Just past the hour mark, there was a flurry of danger from Reading when Angharad James pulled a decent ball back into the box but Millie Bright was able to clear. Shortly afterwards, Bruton found Tash Harding who raced through and was just denied by Berger before the assistant lifted an offside flag.
Chelsea rang the changes and two of the new arrivals were involved in their next chance with ten minutes left. Ji played in Pernille Harder who raced in but was denied by Moloney.
With six minutes to go, the visitors earned a free kick when Beth England was fouled by Deanna Cooper centrally just outside the box. Ji fired in a free-kick which Moloney seemed happy to let go wide – but it was far closer than she may have thought.
Less than a minute later, Ji had better luck with a glorious finish. Blundell played in a high ball which Jessie Fleming played towards the South Korean who let it bounce before unleashing a great shot into the far corner of the net.
Fran Kirby will quite rightly take all the headlines from a sensational individual performance. There does need to be major questions asked of Reading’s defensive structure which allowed their former star so much space amid some catastrophic marking. Chelsea will also point to a really positive performance from 21 year-old midfielder Niamh Charles who hasn’t started many games this season, but put in a great shift this afternoon.
It makes their showdown with Manchester United at Kingsmeadow next weekend even more mouth-watering. If Chelsea were to win that, it would mark a potentially decisive shift in the championship race.
Reading: Moloney, Leine, Cooper, Mitchell, Woodham, Eikeland, Fishlock, James, Williams, Harries, Harding. Substitutes: Bartrip, Bruton, Naylor (GK), Carter, Rowe, Skeels, Roberts.
Chelsea: Berger, Blundell, Bright, Cuthbert, Andersson, Leupolz, Ingle, Kirby, Reiten, Charles, Kerr.
Substitutes: Mjelde, England, Ji, Eriksson, Fleming, Harder, Telford (GK).
Referee: Abigail Byrne