Manchester United 1-6 Chelsea
By Ben Gilby
Chelsea gave Manchester United a lesson in the importance of flexibility, concentration and ruthlessness as the defending champions comfortably dispatched the north-western side at the Leigh Sports Village, with Sam Kerr scoring two and making one of her side’s six goals.
The visitors made two changes for this game. Niamh Charles replaced Ji So-yun, who only returned from Asian Cup qualifying duty on Friday, and Melanie Leupolz came into the midfield after Erin Cuthbert suffered a head injury for Scotland during the week.
The tone of the first half was set just sixteen seconds in when a dreadful clearance from Mary Earps towards Maria Thorisdottir saw the former Chelsea defender mis-control and allow Kerr in to shoot, but Earps managed to push the ball away to the right.
Marc Skinner’s side failed to heed the warning and another catastrophe when trying to play out from the back resulted in Chelsea taking the lead. Earps played the ball towards Hannah Blundell and United’s other former Chelsea defender was robbed of possession all too easily. Leupolz’s through ball towards Sam Kerr allowed the Matildas captain to feed Fran Kirby in the middle of the six yard box, who comfortably slotted home her 50th FA WSL goal.
Chelsea maintained a high press to further turn the screw and make United continue to panic at the back.
It took the hosts five minutes just to get out of their own half. Lucy Staniforth achieved it for her side when she broke down the right and pulled a ball towards Leah Galton but it was too high.
Chelsea continued to threaten and Leupolz fed Sophie Ingle, who in turn found Kirby. Thorisdottir, under extreme pressure, couldn’t clear properly and the ball fell to Kerr who volleyed an effort off her shin wide of the right-hand post.
Much of United’s joy came courtesy of Ona Batlle who was giving Charles real problems down the left, but Marc Skinner’s side were not able to supply her with the ball often enough.
Taking advantage of Charles’ problems on that side of the pitch, Staniforth came across and some fantastic footwork saw her find Kirsty Hanson, who hit an effort just wide.
As the half wore on, Charles grew into the game and she played a crucial role in nullifying the threat of Ella Toone. The United star was forced to take possession across the box rather than inside it and became increasingly isolated as a result.
With United unable to break through the Chelsea defence, the reigning champions made the home side pay for failing to convert opportunities with a moment of magic from Pernille Harder.
On 23 minutes, Denmark’s record scorer motored down the left-hand side. Jackie Groenen and Thorisdottir couldn’t handle the threat as Harder simply waltzed between them, drove into the box and dinked a glorious effort over Earps with her weaker left foot.
In the final ten minutes of the half, Chelsea re-imposed the high press and United simply couldn’t cope with the pressure. Kerr was left totally unmarked on the right and had acres of space to play with. She played a ball in with ease but Harder’s effort was wide.
More diabolical defending just seconds later allowed Harder to get a powerful shot away which was straight at Earps.
Four minutes before the break, another error at the back led to Chelsea’s third goal. Aoife Mannion played a pass towards Katie Zelem, but Guro Reiten intervened and found Kirby on the left. The Lioness laid a low ball across the box towards Kerr and it was easy for the Western Australian to make it 3-0.
It seemed inconceivable that United refused to amend their policy of playing out from the back. The waves of high pressing from Chelsea caused panicked loose passing which Kirby and Kerr were gleefully pouncing on. At the highest level, you just cannot keep stubbornly sticking to the same game plan when it is causing untold damage to your team.
As the players emerged for the second period, Skinner made one change with Alessia Russo replacing Staniforth in a bid to inject some more aggression into their attack. The change made a difference within two minutes when Hanson ran down the right and found Toone. Her ball across found Russo, who hit a shot that deflected off Millie Bright and into the net.
United’s hard work was undone just four minutes later in controversial fashion. Leupolz played a ball to Kirby on the right, and the Berkshire-born attacker in turn found Kerr with a first-time cross. The Matildas all-time record scorer was clearly offside, but play continued as Kerr’s first effort went up in the air and she knocked the ball home at the second attempt.
Russo was involved again in United’s next opportunity with 67 minutes played. Hanson beat Carter and toe-poked the ball through to the substitute, who hit a rocket shot that beat Berger but came crashing back off the bar.
Chelsea remained exceptionally well organised at the back and made a number of changes to their attack. Yet, there was still time for more below-par defending from the home side.
With two minutes left, Leupolz was able to find substitute Beth England on the edge of the box. The 2019/20 FA WSL Player of the Year laid a ball back for Drew Spence, and Chelsea’s longest-serving player was given far too much time to get a shot away and hit her side’s fifth.
Deep into stoppage time, Spence broke through and fired a shot which rebounded off Earps’ midriff into the path of Canada’s Olympic hero Jessie Fleming, who sidefooted home.
Speaking after the game, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes said: “I have an amazing dressing room. The players that came off the bench raised the bar towards the end. I actually thought we were poor in the first half even though we led 3-0. I have high standards. But Sam, Fran and that goal from Pernille, phwoar!
“Pernille has been unbelievable pre-season. Others take all the credit, but Pernille is a top, top player.”
Reflecting on Sam Kerr’s second goal, Hayes admitted: “To be fair, Sam was clearly offside. We have to keep putting resources into our officials and the FA making them full-time and then introduce VAR.”
Pernille Harder spoke about the win saying: “We have amazing players and I have a lot of fun here. We also have impact players off the bench too. We have a big squad. We can get better all the time. Already we’re better than last season and we are just going to get better and better.”
For Manchester United, they again have to learn the hard way about what they need to do in order to compete for Champions League qualification. Unless several new signings can come in during the winter transfer window it looks highly unlikely that they will come close to breaking into the top three this season.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Earps, Blundell, Mannion, Thorisdottir, Batlle, Zelem, Groenen, Hanson, Staniforth, Galton, Toone. Subs: Harris, Risa, Ladd (for Groenen 66’), Fuso, Russo (for Staniforth 46’), Jones (for Galton 82’), Baggaley (GK).
Scorer: Russo 47’
CHELSEA: Berger, Bright, Carter, Eriksson, Charles, Ingle, Leupolz, Reiten, Kirby, Kerr, Harder. Substitutes: Musovic (GK), Nouwen, England (for Kirby 78’), Ji, Fleming (for Harder 78’), Spence (for Kerr 84), Andersson (for Charles 58’), Telford (GK), Fox (for Reiten 78’).
Scorers: Kirby 2’, Harder 24’, Kerr 41’ 51’, Spence 87’, Fleming 90+2′
Referee: Kirsty Dowle