“That’s why we’re champions” echoed around Kingsmeadow on the final whistle as Chelsea once again showed their mettle to overcome a potential banana skin on Wednesday night. In a must-win encounter, the Blues came from behind against Liverpool to take all three points. A 2-1 victory in dramatic fashion ensured their title chase remained on track and in their control.
It was almost pre-destined that it would be this way, especially when Sam Kerr, Miss Inevitable herself, is in the ranks. Down but never out, the ability of Emma Hayes’ side to fight until the final whistle is ever present. They huffed and puffed for much of the game, despite dominating possession and chances created, but always knew they just needed one moment, one mistake to make it count. It was a sentiment reflected by the manager post-match, telling the BBC, “I know we can produce better performances than we have done but, when you get to this stage, you’ve got to dig out results and we’ve done it tonight.”
This encounter was the start of a hectic month for Chelsea that will see them play every 3-4 days. Rescheduled from January after that infamous postponement after just six minutes, brighter weather welcomed Liverpool, the lowering sun bathing the pitch in light as the fans contentedly tucked into their free hot dogs.
Matt Beard’s side arrived in Kingston on the back of a disappointing loss to Leicester. Comprehensively beaten, Beard was clearly frustrated by his team’s performance that day, telling club media that he was “desperately disappointed, angry, and upset” by his team’s failure to “even do the basics right”. There is no getting away from the fact that, despite an impressive first season back in the Barclays WSL, the Reds’ away form (four draws and now six defeats) is on a definite negative spiral. With injury problems of his own – Leanne Kiernan, Niamh Fahey, Megan Campbell, Mel Lawley, Yana Daniels and Fuka Nagano were all missing – the Liverpool manager made four changes to his team. 19-year-old Faye Kirby made her WSL debut in goal while Gemma Bonner and Rhiannon Roberts returned to bolster the defence and Miri Taylor started in midfield.
Emma Hayes, on the other hand, made just the one alteration to the starters that performed so admirably at Camp Nou. It did, however, mean more defensive rotation with Maren Mjelde absent after jarring her back. Jess Carter took up the spare centre-back role while Lauren James was brought into the attack.
How Chelsea would react to the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League was one of the key questions coming into the game. Their worst fears were realised just two minutes in when Liverpool pounced to take the lead, countering in clinical fashion. After Ceri Holland intercepted a pass out, Shanice Van de Sanden threaded through Natasha Dowie who stood up a cross that eluded the leaping Missy Bo Kearns but found Emma Koivisto making the run at the far post. It was a goal that knocked some of the stuffing out of the home players and their supporters, the cobwebs from last week suddenly very evident.
Chelsea, as they so often do in a crisis, regrouped and, as the half wore on, began to take a foothold in proceedings. Guro Reiten was ever present down the left, the main outlet with James and Kerr struggling to make an imprint on the game. Kirby was superb in between the sticks, denying the Chelsea winger at close range before displaying cat-like reactions to tip a Kerr header off the line. The equaliser seemed inevitable as the hosts ramped up the pressure. It came just four minutes before the break when Niamh Charles rose highest to power home a header against her former club.
Hayes rang the changes shortly after the break to try and add more energy into Chelsea’s attack. Pernille Harder, returning from a long-term hamstring injury, came on for the quiet James while Jelena Čanković replaced Erin Cuthbert. There was almost an immediate impact when Eve Perisset drifted in a cross towards the far post with Harder only able to turn it wide.
Just as it was looking like Chelsea were beginning to run out of ideas, becoming ever desperate as the clock ran down, Kerr popped up with the type of big-time goal expected from a player of her calibre. She had not had much of a sniff at goal all evening but when it mattered, she was alert enough to make it count. When Jessie Fleming’s audacious curling effort hit the crossbar in the 86th minute, Liverpool’s defence were left out of position. The ball rebounded perfectly for Kerr to divert past the outstretched gloves of Kirby before wheeling away in delight. It was reminiscent of that game in the run-in last campaign when she struck in injury time against Aston Villa, a moment in hindsight that ensured the title remained in Chelsea’s hands.
After the game, Hayes alluded to the Champions League disappointed her side were feeling. “We had to get into being back in the WSL. That’s what it felt like,” she said. “I did think at the beginning, there was still the hangover from Camp Nou and that game. It took us a while to get our legs going. We brought on some quality in the second half, and it certainly added a bit more of an attacking threat.”
It was a victory that saw the title chase remain firmly in the Londoners’ control with five games left to play. Everton are the next visitors to Chelsea’s fortress on Sunday evening as the race to the trophy continues to gather pace.