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WSL title race following same pattern as Chelsea face defining test

Every year, the nature of the Women’s Super League dictates a single game or moment will define its season. If hindsight can identify where the title race was won and lost, Chelsea’s last three titles follow a theme: in 2021, their winning margin over Manchester City was two points, in 2022, Emma Hayes’s side edged Arsenal by just one point, and in 2023, against Manchester United, it was two again. As the champions now target a fifth league in a row in what is Hayes’s final season, all the evidence suggests tonight’s clash with City may be looked back on as its defining moment.

Chelsea have been here before and Hayes’s side host City at Kingsmeadow knowing they could deliver a knockout blow in the title race. Already with a three-point lead over Gareth Taylor’s team in the WSL table, it will be hard to see how any of the challengers could catch Chelsea should the champions extend their advantage to six points with eight games remaining. Even a draw would keep Chelsea in control, while anything other than a victory for third-placed Arsenal against fourth-placed Manchester United on Saturday would surely rule the Gunners out of contention.

There will be a sense of frustration at the Emirates that the second standout fixture of a seismic weekend in the WSL lacks the significance of the first. It should have done: Arsenal’s 4-1 victory over Chelsea in December felt like a statement but Jonas Eidevall’s side have again lacked the consistency required to take the fight to the champions. Defeats to Tottenham and West Ham last weekend mean Arsenal are no longer in a position to take advantage should Chelsea slip up. Neither are last year’s title challengers, United, who dropped too many points in a faltering first half of the season.

And so it goes over to City: fourth last season, they have followed a similar pattern by starting slowly before hitting their stride over the winter. Led by the goals of the WSL’s top scorer Khadija Shaw, City have won seven in a row in the league and could turn the tables on Chelsea by going above them on goal difference a big win at Kingsmeadow. City defeated Chelsea last March but weren’t challengers at the time: in recent years, with the margins of the title race so close every season, Hayes’s side have largely been faultless in big six-pointers at the top of the table.

But this isn’t just another season: this Chelsea is a Chelsea of new faces, missing the experience and leaders of previous title-winning campaigns. Sam Kerr is out for the rest of the year - Chelsea will be unable to reply on the Australian’s ability to deliver in the biggest moments - while captain Millie Bright has been sidelined since the end of November and may not return until at some point after the February international break. Their respective absences have highlighted the scale of Chelsea’s evolution.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The presence of Hayes, and the impending date of the ultimate change at Stamford Bridge, has ensured Chelsea have remained on course. They have bounced back from the thrashing at Arsenal and steadied from the blow of losing Kerr to a devastating ACL injury. With 12 goals in the WSL already this season, Lauren James has become even more central to Hayes’s side and has more than doubled her tally from last season already. Chelsea have also signed the Colombia striker Mayra Ramirez for a WSL record fee, adding to the squad depth the Blues brought in over the summer.

Hayes knows it takes, but are the new parts of her team ready for a potential title decider of this magnitude? It is only two months ago that Hayes admitted Chelsea were “bullied” in their 4-1 defeat at the Emirates and Manchester City’s current form is as good as Arsenal’s was then. It is over the second half of the season, though, when the stakes are clear and top-of-the-table clashes such as tonight’s encounter at Kingsmeadow can determine the title race, and it is there where Chelsea assume charge and refuse to let their standards slip.

And while the title will be won over the 22 games, it is showdowns like tonight that really matter: a goalless draw at Kingsmeadow in February 2022 was pivotal when Chelsea ended up edging Arsenal by a point, two victories over Manchester United were ultimately the difference when they finished two points clear in 2023. Now, if they don’t lose to Manchester City, and barring an unprecedented collapse, a fifth title in a row will feel as if it is coming back to west London in 2024.