Two stunning volleys from Sam Kerr helped Chelsea to secure a third consecutive Women’s Super League title as they twice came from behind to earn a thrilling 4-2 win against Manchester United.
With Arsenal one point behind the title holders, the destination of the WSL trophy swung between north and south-west London as United pushed Chelsea hard at a packed and sun-drenched Kingsmeadow.
The title was Chelsea’s to lose but they were playing a United team who had a chance of reaching the Champions League for the first time. After a shaky, injury-hit start to the season, Manchester City had clawed their way back into third, with a two‑point lead over United in fourth. United needed a win here and for Reading to take points from City.
The United forward Martha Thomas gave her team the lead that would send the away fans 25 miles to the north-east, where West Ham faced second-placed Arsenal, and the away fans in the corner at Kingsmeadow, wild with hope.
Chelsea hit back through Erin Cuthbert’s fierce strike five minutes later, but the visitors reclaimed the lead before the break thanks to Ella Toone’s low effort.
Marc Skinner, United’s manager, said before the game: “Not only do we have nothing to lose and everything to gain, it is a wonderful opportunity for us to go and show how energetic we can be at the end of the season.”
His side began exactly as he hoped, with an intensity fitting of a team ready to push on and upset things at the top of the table next season.
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So stunned were the home team – they were almost spectators as United threatened to rip away their title – that the manager, Emma Hayes, contemplated making changes within half an hour but held out until half‑time. “I could have taken off a lot of players at half-time, being brutally honest,” she said.
“I felt we thought too much about the loss in the first half – it makes you look tired, you look drained. All of a sudden we come out in the second half, I say to the team in a huddle: ‘Listen get the first press right, get your first shot right, do it together, don’t fall apart,’ and it’s not bloody rocket science, is it, that we done enough together and delivered it.”
No season can top the 2014 finale, but this went close. Then, Chelsea crumbled, relinquishing a two-point advantage over Birmingham and three-point lead over Liverpool, who came from third to be champions on the final day.
Here, Chelsea dug themselves out of trouble, as they have so often during this title charge. Once they had usurped Arsenal at the top of the table there was no way they were stepping down.
“No matter what we do in terms of the team we put out, or the tactics we set out, the team has the ability when something doesn’t go well to overcome it,” Hayes said.
It took 50 seconds of the second half for Chelsea to draw level as Kerr blasted a volley into the top corner. Five minutes later Chelsea were back on top of the table – a draw would not have been enough, with Arsenal by now beating West Ham. Ji So-yun slipped the ball wide to Pernille Harder on the left and the Denmark forward crossed low for Guro Reiten to side-foot in.
With the stadium rocking and the momentum having swung Chelsea’s way, an audacious goal from Kerr, the golden boot winner’s 20th of the campaign, extended their lead and strengthened their grip on the title. Mary Earps’ pass out was intercepted by Reiten, who headed it forward to Kerr and the Australia striker, 25 yards out and with her back to goal, cushioned the ball on her chest before turning and sending a looping volley into the net.
“She is a wonderfully energetic, forward-thinking, space hunter,” Skinner said of Kerr, who he came up against when he was manager of Orlando Pride and Kerr was at Chicago Red Stars. With Manchester City’s 4-0 win at Reading the result at Kingsmeadow mattered little in the end for United.
“At Birmingham [where Skinner was before he joined Orlando] we got fourth with the worst budget in the league, bar Bristol, probably by about 15 pence, but I believe in my coaching staff, our energy and our ambition and, if there’s anyone that can close the gap on that alone it’s our staff, but we have to invest and get better physicality.
“If we don’t recruit it doesn’t matter what we’ve learned this season. We have to recruit to close the gap, because other teams have and will continue to.”