Kerr-ific Chelsea Retain The Title

Chelsea 5–0 Reading

By Ben Gilby

Above: All smiles as Chelsea lift the FAWSL title for the fourth time. Photo: @BarclaysFAWSL

Chelsea regained the Barclays FA Women’s Super League title with a comfortable victory over Reading at Kingsmeadow.

Emma Hayes named the same starting line-up as last week’s Champions League Semi-Final which meant that Swedish international Jonna Andersson remained on the bench.

Reading’s season will be filed under ‘transitional’ and the retirement of legend Fara Williams symbolises this end of an era.

The 37 year-old, who lined up for the final time in her career at Kingsmeadow won a record 172 caps for the Lionesses and during a spell with Everton from 2004 and 2012 scored 70 goals in 122 games.

It didn’t take long for Chelsea to show their dominance as the home side earned a corner from the opening play. Jess Carter’s low corner found Melanie Leupolz on the edge of the box and she side footed a shot into the net with just over a minute on the clock.

One thing Reading are renowned for though is their stubbornness and work rate and Kelly Chambers’ team dug in to stifle Chelsea’s forward ambition for the next half hour or so as their defensive pattern shifted to actively press the home side’s offensive play with the consequence that the Blues were forced to go backwards in an attempt to come forwards.

However, if anyone had the creative nous to break through the Reading wall, it was the Kerr and Kirby double act. Ji played a trademark perfect pass out to Kirby which Kerr ran onto. Her ball back to the England star resulted in Kirby hitting a first time effort into the net for 2-0.

Above: Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby – one of the greatest double acts that the FAWSL has seen. Photo: @BarclaysFAWSL

The partnership between Kerr and Kirby is unquestionably the key component in Chelsea’s relentless march to silverware and at this point, it’s important to cast our minds back to October when there was sustained criticism of Kerr and complaints that the FAWSL had been sold a dud.

These critics missed three very important points which were impacting Kerr at the start of the season. Prior to lockdown in March 2020, the Australian had developed a strong understanding with Beth England, her main strike partner at the time. Watching the two together at Kingsmeadow in those three months was a joy to behold as a real telepathic understanding was growing before our eyes.

Then, England had an operation over the summer and never really established herself as a regular starter this season, which meant that Kerr had to develop a new offensive relationship with Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder.

Kirby was unable to play for Chelsea when Kerr first arrived in January 2020 due to a debilitating injury and associated mental battles which the Lionesses star deserves huge plaudits for overcoming to the extent that she is now playing the greatest football of her career. Therefore it was no surprise that it took a number of weeks to build up that understanding, but once it built up, boy did it work.

The third element that the critics were ignoring was perhaps the one which showed the lack of awareness they had about Sam Kerr as a player. To a number of those critics, the Western Australian was simply a goal machine and her failing to find the net was a sign she was a failure. They either showed no awareness of or chose to ignore the huge amount of work off the ball which Kerr was getting through each week for the South London side. Something that she has always done throughout her career which has made her the ultimate team player. Blues boss Emma Hayes was well aware of this part of Kerr’s game and highlighted it week in week out in response to the criticism.

Since then, Kerr has not looked back and apart from scoring 21 league goals of her own this season, the East Fremantle born striker has been responsible for a large number of Kirby’s tally of 16 in a devastating partnership which you feel is only going to get more deadly next season.

Whilst it’s been the trio of Kerr, Kirby and Harder who have earned the column inches and social media posts, there are two other players who have been absolutely vital in the Chelsea’s success this season.

Erin Cuthbert embodies a massive part of what makes Chelsea the team they are. The 22 year-old is the ultimate Scottish terrier snapping around the ankles of the opposition. She is capable of taking on and dominating the best as Lucy Bronze found out earlier in the season when the Irvine born star had the Lionesses’ legend in her back pocket all afternoon long. Cuthbert runs kilometre after kilometre off the ball to neuter opponents and chase down and ultimately win countless lost causes. Erin Cuthbert is the player who will leave the pitch caked in mud when everyone else is pristine clean. It will be the biggest travesty of all if she is not in the Team GB squad for the Olympics.

Above: Another stellar season from Erin Cuthbert. Photo: @erincuthbert_

Then there is Ji So-yun who is coming towards the end of her seventh season for Chelsea. She remains a key part of the midfield establishment at Kingsmeadow. The South Korean has played over 110 games in her time in South London. At times last season there were signs that the opposition were able to successfully out muscle her to reduce her impact on the game. However, from the start of the season, Ji has brought back out her magic wand and has used it to remarkable effect. She is capable of class of the highest order: a perfect centimetre perfect through ball from midfield, pulling the strings to link up play or her famed glorious free kicks.

Reading began the second period on the front foot. It was the tighter and more offensive combination play of their midfielders Rachel Rowe, Angharad James and Fara Williams who were behind this improved standing in the game. Unfortunately for the Royals this was not matched by sharpness from their sole striker Danielle Carter.

Yet again though, as Reading threatened and failed to break through, Chelsea showed them how it was done. A long ball through to Kerr on the right saw her side foot a pass to Kirby who was just outside the ‘D’. She took a touch, created space and unleashed a rocket into the right hand corner of the net.

The Special K partnership combined again for Chelsea’s fourth. Cuthbert played a short pass through to Kirby who looped a ball into the box which Kerr volleyed first time into the net to ensure she won the FAWSL Golden Boot Award as the league’s top scorer.

Cuthbert made it 5-0 when her effort was helped over the line by Royals keeper Grace Maloney.

The scary thing for Chelsea’s opponents in England and Europe is that there is still scope for them to get even better. There is no question for me that Emma Hayes’ team do not have the strength in depth in defence that they do in midfield and up front. Whilst it might seem churlish to suggest this of a team who only conceded ten league goals all season, the highest standards of defence can help to decide the finest margins at the very highest level in the Champions League and if Chelsea want to dominate the pinnacle of European women’s football in the way Olympique Lyonnais did previously, this is where they will need to focus their recruitment.

Above: Magda Eriksson – Chelsea’s captain and talisman. Photo: @ChelseaFCW

Some Blues fans were surprised that last summer only Niamh Charles arrived in a defensive position with the club again focusing on bolstering their offensive options. Magda Eriksson’s loss for a month saw the Blues look more vulnerable than usual. Millie Bright is not the same player without Eriksson beside her at the back.

Interestingly, the only player Chelsea have been linked with so far is Manchester United’s young forward Lauren James. Given James’ family are based just over 10km from Kingsmeadow, it is a move which looks very likely to happen.

Chelsea can celebrate the third piece of silverware for 2020/21, but with a Champions League Final coming up next Sunday and this season’s FA Cup running into the new campaign, they still have every chance to have many more glory days ahead.

CHELSEA: Berger, Charles, Eriksson, Bright, Carter, Ingle, Leupolz, Ji, Kirby, Harder, Kerr. Substitutes: Musovic (GK), Blundell, England, Reiten, Fleming, Cuthbert, Spence, Telford (GK), J. Andersson.

Scorers: Leupolz 2, Kirby 43, 57, Kerr 71, Cuthbert 75.

READING: Malone, Leine, Cooper, Bartrip, Roberts, James, Williams, Rowe, Harding, Harries, Carter. Substitutes: Nayler (GK), Childerhouse, Flores, Jeon, Eikeland, Chaplen.

Referee: Stacey Pearson.

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