The Women’s Super League title race was unexpectedly blown wide open on Sunday as Manchester United and - most notably - Chelsea both went down to surprise defeats which have brought Manchester City right back into the picture.
The league-leading Blues went into their home fixture against Brighton unbeaten in 33 games and knowing that United were on the verge of a loss which would give them a huge boost in their bid to defend the crown they won in the curtailed 2019-20 season without losing a game.
Emma Hayes’ side were heavy favourites against Hope Powell’s strugglers, and it looked to be business as usual when Sam Kerr masterfully headed home an Erin Cuthbert corner in the first five minutes as Chelsea targeted a 19th successive win in all competitions. It was the Australian’s 10th goal of the season, closing the gap to just two on reigning Golden Boot holder and current top scorer, Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema.
But Brighton were in no mood to lie down as the snow came down on a bitterly cold Kingsmeadow pitch. The visitors, who had only scored nine goals in their opening 13 league games, hit back almost instantly as Aileen Whelan towered above her marker to nod in a surprise equaliser in a game which would be ultimately decided from set pieces as Brighton pressed fiercely in open play.
Hayes, who left Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder on the bench, rang the changes soon after half-time but the hosts couldn’t find that elusive winning goal. Instead, it was Brighton who took all three points as Megan Connolly scored direct from a corner 12 minutes from time to the clear delight of her teammates. The corner eluded Chelsea’s stand-in keeper Carly Telford, handing the visitors a win which moves them away from the relegation zone as well as sparking life into the title race.
“It was a demanding, tough game,” former England boss Powell beamed afterwards. “We had to be disciplined, with hard work and good effort, and if you do those things you give yourself a chance of winning the game. I'll take some luck against a side like Chelsea - you take all the luck you can get!”
Manchester United’s defeat in the earlier game at home to Reading means they and Chelsea remain level at the top with the Blues having a game in hand. The Royals, who had won just one of their previous 10 games, hit two goals in the space of three second-half minutes, while they also had goalkeeper Grace Maloney to thank after a number of important stops.
This was another game decided by set pieces as first Natasha Harding headed home from close range when the hosts failed to clear a corner, and then Danielle Carter headed in Emma Mitchell’s dangerous free-kick. It was United’s first home league defeat and will come as a big blow to Casey Stoney and her side, especially after Chelsea’s rare setback which would have given them a leg-up in their title bid had they been able to collect the three points at Leigh Sports Village.
Manchester City took full advantage of the top two dropping points though, winning a key clash against fourth-placed Arsenal away from home. Their 2-1 win, courtesy of goals from Ellen White and Lauren Hemp, takes them within two points of the top two and, like Chelsea, they have a game in hand on their second-placed neighbours.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, the bottom two did each other no favours as Bristol City drew 1-1 with West Ham, keeping the Robins rooted to the foot of the table on six points, compared to the Hammers’ eight. Emily van Egmond’s unfortunate own goal gave the visitors the lead, before Katerina Svitkona equalised with a low drive to share the spoils. Svitkona’s was the 50th goal Bristol City have conceded in just 13 games this season, something they will definitely have to improve upon if they are to remain in the top flight.