Chelsea and Man City stutter as WSL makes electric return

Gareth Taylor
Manchester City boss Gareth Taylor was questioned last week on the number of high-profile departures at the club this summer

The Women’s Super League made an electric return this weekend with shock results, record crowds and impressive debut goals.

Clubs looking to build on the buzz created by England’s success at Euro 2022 were made to wait an extra week – after the first round of fixtures were postponed following the death of Queen Elizabeth II – but it was certainly worth it.

Questions have been asked of Manchester City after their large list of departures, including the world record transfer of midfielder Keira Walsh to Barcelona, and whether anyone could knock champions Chelsea off their perch.

But few would have seen both of those clubs losing on the opening weekend as City were beaten 4-3 in a dramatic and frantic encounter at Villa Park, before Chelsea suffered a shock defeat to newly promoted Liverpool.

It was a reminder of the competition facing the top clubs this season as City look set for a challenging battle to secure Champions League qualification.

Manager Gareth Taylor was under pressure last season after a poor start during an injury crisis but City clawed it back to finish third, only to lose in the qualification rounds of the Champions League last month.

That loss to Real Madrid, compounded by the late departure of Walsh a day before the transfer deadline and now this opening loss to Villa have darkened the clouds hanging over the club.

Their defeat was made worse by the fact rivals Manchester United – who many predict will be City’s closest challengers for third spot – comfortably beat Reading 4-0 with a slick performance on Saturday.

The pressure on City – and Taylor – to deliver increases as scrutiny of the decision to allow several high-profile players to leave in the transfer window grows.

“The spine of Aston Villa’s team was up against a broken spine in Manchester City’s team,” former England goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis said on BBC Two. “A spine that has been taken apart with players leaving left, right and centre.”

The dramatic scenes continued at Prenton Park as Liverpool, in front of a record 3,006 crowd, scored two second-half penalties to win 2-1 and spoil the start of Chelsea’s title defence.

Chelsea also lost to Arsenal on the opening day of last season but looked surprisingly short of creativity and quality in the final third against Liverpool on Sunday.

Emma Hayes was evidently frustrated and said her team “couldn’t hit a barn door” on a weekend when rivals Arsenal won 4-0 comfortably at home to Brighton.

The Blues lost just twice in the league in 2021-22 but with just one point separating them and runners-up Arsenal last season, they cannot afford to throw away further points against sides they will be expected to beat.

Villa scoring again as Liverpool show credentials

Villa showed ambition in the transfer window as they signed England international Rachel Daly, France midfielder Kenza Dali and took Scotland winger Kirsty Hanson on loan.

They only scored 13 goals in total last season but any concerns over their ability to do so this year were quickly squashed against City.

They were front-footed, aggressive and clinical in front of 6,785 supporters – another record – at Villa Park.

“We wanted to be brave, take risks, create chances and make this a horrible place to play and I think we did that,” said Daly.

It was a demonstration of Villa’s intent to ruffle the feathers of those teams at the top of the table in an effort to improve on their ninth-place finish last season.

And if anyone wondered if Liverpool were equipped to compete with the best teams in the WSL on their return they were given a clear indication of the Merseyside club’s pedigree.

The victory over Chelsea marked the hosts’ return to the top flight after a two-year absence but they played with the similar belief and confidence which they demonstrated so regularly in the Championship.

Under manager Matt Beard, who guided them to back-to-back WSL titles in his first stint in charge, Liverpool have looked robust and clinical – and they needed that on Sunday.

Chelsea caused them problems and dominated possession but Liverpool grew into the game and took their chances when they arrived.

As Beard said afterwards – “there shouldn’t be any hesitancy anymore” for Liverpool, who showed their credentials as a team that belong in the WSL.

England’s stars in the headlines

Rachel Daly celebrates
England international Rachel Daly scored twice on her Aston Villa debut after joining from Houston Dash this summer

Across the country fans were queuing up outside stadiums and clubs welcomed record crowds as many hoped to see the return of England’s Euro winners.

Golden Boot winner Beth Mead needed no time to settle back into club football as she scored twice and set-up Sweden striker Stina Blackstenius in Arsenal’s victory over Brighton on Friday.

Manchester United fans screamed Ella Toone’s name as she entered Leigh Sports Village on Saturday and she was full of spark in their victory over Reading, while England team-mate Alessia Russo got off the mark with a header before half-time.

Nikita Parris also looked bright in her debut cameo off the bench for United.

But it was Aston Villa’s new signing Daly who stole the show with two superb goals on her debut in the win over City, while Euro 2022 final goalscorer Chloe Kelly grabbed an assist on the losing side.

“[Daly’s] a winner, she sets standards, she gets after people but she can play for sure,” said Villa boss Ward.

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