·10 December 2023
·10 December 2023
After Emma Hayes announced she would be leaving at the end of the season Jonas Eidevall teased, amid praise for the Chelsea manager, that he wanted to make “life in the WSL as difficult and unpleasant” as possible for her.
In front of a Women’s Super League record crowd of 59,042 at the Emirates Stadium, where Sam Kerr had stood years before her move to Chelsea and wondered what it would look like with 60,000 fans in it, Eidevall’s side delivered a stunning win to put them level on points with the league leaders and rip the title race wide open.
Hayes will take up the vacant US women’s national team manager’s role and if there were hopes of going six points clear of Arsenal and setting themselves on course for a procession to a fifth consecutive title they were dashed by a lacklustre performance against a hungry side spearheaded by Alessia Russo, with two goals.
Eidevall made two changes to the side that beat West Ham 3-0 before the international break with the captain, Kim Little, and her midfield partner Lia Wälti returning. For Chelsea there were also two changes, Hayes bringing in Sjoeke Nüsken and Jessie Fleming after they were omitted from the starting XI for their 5-2 defeat of Leicester. Kerr was fit to start, after missing the international break with a foot injury, but Millie Bright remains out and Melanie Leupolz was a late omission because of sickness.
Arsenal started on the front foot, harrying and pressing high up the pitch, and were deservedly ahead after eight minutes. A beautiful move on the counterattack sent Caitlin Foord running free on the left and the Australia forward cut inside and clipped the ball towards Little. It was pinged away from her before landing kindly for Victoria Pelova, who span and laid off to Beth Mead. The England forward turned inside to leave Ann-Katrin Berger out of position before she lashed into the roof of the net.
It was all Arsenal but their boldness with the press then cost them, Chelsea escaping the pressure on the left before shifting the ball to Fleming in acres of space in the middle. The Canadian laid off to Johanna Rytting Kaneryd to fire in from a tight angle. It could have been argued that Kerr, in an offside position, was obstructing the view of Manuela Zinsberger, but the goalkeeper should have done better.
Chelsea were clawing their way back into the game but two goals in two minutes ended a short spell on the front foot and sent a furious Hayes swapping the edge of the technical area for her seat.
Berger and her defence were at fault as they conceded a first goal from a header this season, the goalkeeper coming out to Mead’s corner but getting nowhere near the ball, which a rising Amanda Ilestedt powered in. Shortly afterwards the Gunners had a two-goal cushion: Wälti sent a long ball into the run of Russo and the forward collected and coolly side-footed past Berger.
Frustrated by Arsenal’s success on their left, Hayes made three changes at half-time, with Ashley Lawrence coming on at right-back and Kadeisha Buchanan next to her to try to plug the leak. Nüsken was also out, with the more attacking Fran Kirby on to try to provide a link to the somewhat isolated Kerr – though her defensive shift after coming on was notable.
The changes had the desired effect. It was far more even in the second half, but the visiting team struggled to properly test the Arsenal back line. The introduction of Guro Reiten, playing for the first time since sustaining an ankle injury in October, was another attempt at providing more of an attacking threat.
A 74th-minute penalty killed Chelsea hopes of a revival, though had VAR been in use it would have likely overturned the decision, Jess Carter getting to the ball before Berger and Russo collided. The referee, Rebecca Welch, could not see that, though, and Russo coolly slotted into the bottom corner from the spot.
James was taken off moments later after she was booked for a late stamp on Wälti, after play had already been stopped, the England forward fortunate not to be shown a red for her frustration.
The penalty was the sucker punch that took any sense of jeopardy out of the game for the hosts, Arsenal instead looking the more likely to score, with the substitute Stina Blackstenius and Foord both going close late on.