Sport Fran Kirby stars as Chelsea thrash Reading to secure fourth WSL title
Women's Football: WSL relegation scrap heats up in double weekend thriller
The top five talking points from the weekend's Women's Super League resultsAt the bottom of the table however, there's still nothing to separate the four sides locked in one of the WSL's most nail-biting relegation battles.
Emma Hayes would doubtless laugh off the comparison, though there were echoes of Sir Alex Ferguson when she encouraged her players to observe the team ethic of geese, before the game which took them to a second consecutive WSL title.
Ferguson did not quite go to themanager's lengths by asking his players to 'honk' like the bird in question, though his parable was very much the same as hers when he employed it a decade back. 'They fly in V-formation,' he explained. 'The second row subs for the first ones. The second ones take over. So it's teamwork.'
Whichever way you tell it, Hayes is beginning to earn a status here approaching what Ferguson established at Manchester United. It's three titles in four years for her here, now, and the first won back-to-back sinceachieved the feat in 2014. She's left Liverpool and in the dust. spent big last summer but they're still in her rear view mirror, too.
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Chelsea (4-3-3): Berger 6.5; Charles 7 (Andersson 57), Bright 6, Eriksson 6.5, Carter 6 (Blundell 68); Leupolz 6.5 (Fleming 69), Ingle, Ji 7 (Reiten 7); Harder 6 (Cuthbert 57), Kerr 8
Manager: E Hayes 8
Reading (4-3-3): Moloney 5.5; Leine 5.5, Cooper 5.5, Bartrip 5, Roberts 6 (Eikeland 78 6); James 6, Williams 7, Rowe 7.5; Carter 6, Harries 5.5 (Chaplen 46 7), Harding 5.4
Manager: K Chambers 7
Referee: S Pearson 7
Demanding, often uncompromising, intellectually curious about marginal gains and yet innately aware of what makes her players tick: Old Trafford knows all about a manager like that. Showing the players geese videos was Hayes' way of guarding against complacency with the title still in the balance. They took the lead on 70 seconds - the fastest opening goal of the season.
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There have been plenty in the second row of Chelsea's V-formation, all season. The 5ft 3in Ji-So Yun gives everyone a run for their money in the player of the season stakes, for sheer technical consistency. She ran the game in the 3-1 win over City here last October: vital three points in retrospect.
Millie Bright was a huge contributor in the fiercely fought draw at Arsenal in November. Ann-Katrin Berger's string of saves kept the score at 2-2 at City, 18 days ago, when defeat would have put a different complexion on Sunday. But Fran Kirkby has been the shining light, delivering relentlessly, not least in the 2-1 win which took the wind out of Manchester United's sails and sent Chelsea top in January.
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Both her goals on Sunday typified her extraordinarily intuitive partnership with Kerr, which City cannot come close to matching. First, she allowed Kerr's precision ball through a crowded area to run across her before arcing a shot beyond Grace Moloney.
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Then she anticipated Kerr's cut-back to consign a 15-yard first-time effort to the net. The roles were reversed for Chelsea's fourth – Kerr despatching from close quarters from Kirby's floated pass. By then, Hayes had removed half of her outfield players with Sunday's Gothenburg Champions League final against Barcelona in mind. Kerr's 21 goals bring her the WSL Golden Boot. Berger takes the golden glove.
The title has not been a walk-over. It helped that City, with five big signings and a new manager, took six weeks to really fire. But Manchester United and Everton invested more and the whole business has been more ruthless this time. Managers have been sacked at a higher rate than in the Premier League. As things stand, only five of the 12 clubs will start next season with the manager who finished the last.
'Teams have invested. Some heavily,' Hayes reflected on Sunday night. 'It wasn't just a question of 'Chelsea have invested' and other teams haven't. There are four teams that could have been in with a shout one way or another. This was the hardest [title].
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The forward scored twice against Bayern Munich last week to help the Blues reach their first European finalKirby scored twice in that match as the Blues won 5-3 on aggregate –– securing their place in a European final for the first time.
'We've also had to manage Covid. We've had to manage a dressing room with people who haven't been in more than a year. That's hard. But there's also depth. People think strength in depth is an advantage but you try managing it and you'll see how challenging it is - day in, day out, keeping players on the bench. I've never had that before. I've probably never faced this amount of challenge internally.'
The advent of the £21million Sky Sports/BBC TV deal for next season has made this a very bad season to be relegated for Bristol City and we now wait in hope for a levelling up, with the top four so painfully far ahead of the rest. It is surprising that relatively few clubs have really made a go of it, given the comparatively small outlay required. The £250,000 it cost to bring Harder here equates to a top end Premier League weekly wage.
There are challenges for everyone. Arsenal must find a new manager. Manchester City's American stars may head back to the United States. But Hayes may need more where that geese adage came from. 'Do I look like anyone who gets things from a coaching manual,' she replied, when asked if this was the source. 'My older sister, Victoria, gave it me. It made me smile. So I used it.'
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