Man City’s coming-of-age night provides twist to WSL title race

Chelsea 0-1 Manchester City: Khadija Shaw’s early winner and Khiara Keating’s late saves were the difference as the visitors went level on points with the leaders in the WSL table

Jamie Braidwood
at Kingsmeadow
Saturday 17 February 2024 10:07 GMT
Keating, left, and Shaw were vital at both ends for City
Keating, left, and Shaw were vital at both ends for City (Action Images via Reuters)

In Emma Hayes’s final season at Chelsea, the Women’s Super League will be going down to the wire again. Though for the wider observers, they will have Manchester City to thank for that after Gareth Taylor’s side defeated the four-time reigning champions at Kingsmeadow to blow the title race wide open. Chelsea, previously unbeaten in 33 home games in the WSL, could have gone six points clear with victory but the hosts were flat and strangely subdued. City rose to the occasion and deservedly joined Chelsea at the top of the table, level on points with eight games to go.

Khadija Shaw’s 14th goal of the WSL season in the 14th minute was enough to settle this top-of-the-table clash as City survived late pressure in the nine minutes of stoppage time to see out their lead. The trademark response that has become accustomed from Hayes’s “mentality monsters” was denied by the brilliant City goalkeeper Khiara Keating, who made a key double save at the death to stop Jelena Cankovic’s volley and Sjoeke Nusken’s follow-up. Chelsea should have been awarded a penalty late in the first half when Mayra Ramirez was brought down by a sliding Alex Greenwood in the box, but, on the whole, the 19-year-old Keating would have expected a far busier conclusion to her night.

There would be no late equaliser or someone rising to the occasion to produce a big-game moment in the absence of Sam Kerr, though Hayes rued that Cankovic chance. It has been that resilience on which Chelsea have won four titles in a row under Hayes, but if there was an opportunity now with the Australian out for the season, City grabbed it with both hands. This felt like a significant moment for Taylor’s side, a sense of a team coming of age as they defeated Chelsea at this stage of the season and as the form team in the WSL.

Shaw finishes past Hannah Hampton to give City the lead (Action Images via Reuters)
Keating made a stunning double save in stoppage time to prevent an equaliser (Getty Images)

Taylor was proud. “It’s a big step for us,” he said, his team firmly in the fight now. “We’ve got eight games to go. We’re excited about the challenge.”

If Chelsea were overrun by Arsenal in their 4-1 defeat at the Emirates in December, Hayes’s side were this time outplayed by a composed and calculated visiting team, who executed their game plan well by playing on the front foot and pressing Chelsea high. Taylor’s side perhaps lacked an identity last year after a number of high-profile departures, but they have now built an impressive team: from the outstanding Yui Hasegawa’s positional sense at the base of midfield, to the composure of Greenwood and Laia Aleixandri in defence, and the bravery and calmness of Keating, who was so impressive again and surely now will be set to make her England debut later this month.

Keating won City the game at the end but Shaw put them on their way at the start. Set up by the excellent Jess Park, who robbed Erin Cuthbert of possession, Shaw produced an outstanding finish with the outside of her right boot to beat Hannah Hampton.  And if everything about City and their play feels directed towards Shaw, with Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly relentless again on the wings, the whole team’s press leading towards its focal point, it is Shaw’s goals who could take City to the title over the run-in. Goal difference, after all, could decide the race.

Shaw celebrates her 14th goal of the WSL season (Action Images via Reuters)

Shaw’s goal was one of the few moments of quality in a clash that Chelsea never quite turned up for. “We all know it’s a game of tight margins,” Hayes accepted. “We started the game really well, then we conceded a poor goal. I thought that affected us a little bit in the way we passed the ball. The disappointing thing from us was our final third play. I’ve never known these games to have a lot in them. The error falls in our way and they capitalised on that and defended well.”

Apart from Lauren James, who drifted dangerously at every opportunity, Chelsea lacked threat; though they should have been awarded a penalty when Ramirez burst past Greenwood but was cut down by the City captain as she shaped to shoot. Ramirez had lost control slightly but Greenwood got none of the ball and for City it was a fortunate escape. Chelsea improved and Keating was forced into a good save to deny Fran Kirby following a well-worked move instigated by James gliding off the wing.

Greenwood’s challenge on Ramirez was clumsy and could have led to a penalty (Getty Images)

The second half drifted from Chelsea and their eventual rally came far too late, deep into the nine minutes of added time. Hayes made changes and altered her team’s shape but in the absence of Kerr, the champions needed someone to step up and deliver a big moment: Cuthbert flashed a curling shot wide of the far post but Chelsea did not threaten again until the final seconds. When it broke to Cankovic in the City box, it seemed as if Hayes’s side would find their late moment, only for Keating to spring to her right and then launch herself in smothering Nusken. Chelsea did not find their usual equaliser and perhaps the title race is heading in a different direction this season, too.

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