The top two teams in the English WSL meet on Friday night, with Manchester City having the chance to leapfrog Chelsea with a win. We look ahead to the clash and the key battles to expect at Kingsmeadow.

Friday evening sees arguably the biggest fixture in the English women’s football calendar so far this season as Chelsea welcome Manchester City to Kingsmeadow in a clash between the top two sides in the Women’s Super League.

Only three points separate them in the WSL table after 13 matchdays and Chelsea, who have been the team to beat in the last decade, are looking stronger than ever as they bid to continue that dominance in England.

In a title pursuit that has taken on more significance after Emma Hayes announced she would be leaving in the summer to manage the US women’s national team, the Blues want to mark the end of an era with a record-breaking eighth league title in 10 years.

Man City, on the other hand, would love to spoil the Chelsea party and pile on the pressure by beating their title rivals on their home turf. They have just one WSL title to their name so far, coming in 2016 when they finished five points ahead of – you guessed it – Chelsea.

A win for Man City in this clash would put them on level terms and set up a tantalising final seven games for both clubs.

Whatever happens, this fixture promises excitement, drama, and late goals. That was the case when the teams met in October at the Joie Stadium, a game in which England duo Alex Greenwood and Lauren Hemp both saw red. City took an early lead through Chloe Kelly and a resolute performance looked like sealing a valuable three points. That was until Guro Reiten equalised in the sixth minute of added time at the end of the game to snatch a draw – Chelsea’s second latest goal in WSL history (95:08).

Man City 1-1 Chelsea WSL

A Tale of Two Blues

No side have been as consistently strong in WSL history as Chelsea, and they are on track to add another WSL title to their collection should they continue their current form.

That consistency has seen the 2023-24 edition of the side secure the exact same start after 13 league games of the season as the 2022-23 team – winning 11 games and dropping just five points (D1 L1), while even conceding the same tally of goals (12).

Man City are enjoying their third best start to a WSL season after 13 matches (31 points), but most importantly they have improved on their record at this stage last term (29 points) on the way to finishing fourth. Much of their failure to finish inside the top three in 2022-23 was a result of their end-of-season form, however. After defeating Chelsea 2-0 at home on 26 March (their 16th game), they went on to lose three of their final six games.

Winning at home against Chelsea is one thing but defeating them away is a very different proposition.

Hayes’ side have won a staggering 22 successive home matches in the WSL, a record streak that’s obliterated their own, and the WSL’s, previous record of 14 in a row back in January 2021.

Longest Winning Runs at Home in WSL

Not only would a win in this match against City extend that to 23 home victories in a row, it would also see them set the outright WSL record for the longest unbeaten run at home to 34 games.

The sheer magnitude of their success at home and the ability to create a fortress at Kingsmeadow has been a huge factor in the dominance Chelsea have enjoyed in recent years.

It’s also no surprise the team they currently share the unbeaten record of 33 games with is Man City, who recorded their own impressive run in 2021. Over recent years, the two teams have pushed each other to the most incredible record-breaking heights, a pattern that shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

Longest Unbeaten Home Runs in WSL

To protect their position as joint leaders in the WSL unbeaten home record standings, City will have to undertake one of the toughest tasks in the competition – shutting a rampant Chelsea attack out.

Only five sides in WSL history have scored more than 40 goals in their opening 13 games of a season, with this current Chelsea side (41) behind only Arsenal in 2018-19 (50), Liverpool in 2013 (44), Man City in 2020-21 (43) and themselves in 2019-20 (42) – all of those went on to win the title apart from City.

Chelsea’s ruthlessness in front of goal has been what’s set them apart from other WSL sides so far this season. They’ve averaged three non-penalty goals per game, which is surpassed by only two sides in WSL history across a season – Arsenal in 2018-19 (3.3) and themselves in 2019-20 (3.1) – while only five sides have ever attempted a higher average of shots per game than this Chelsea side (19.8) within a single WSL season.

Since expected goals (xG) data became available in 2017-18 for the WSL, only one side – again, Chelsea in 2019-20 (2.62) – have averaged a higher non-penalty xG per game rate than Hayes’ current crop (2.52). Converting those chances hasn’t been an issue either, with their non-penalty shot conversion of 15.2% being the best in the WSL this season and the 10th best in a single WSL season among all clubs.

While City are far from slack in front of goal themselves as the second-highest scorers in the competition this season (35 goals, 34 excluding penalties), they don’t create chances at the quality of Chelsea, with their non-penalty xG of 1.87 per game 0.65 lower than Chelsea’s average.

WSL Goal Difference

However, this could be a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. While Chelsea have thrived in attack, City have shown their defensive prowess. They have conceded fewer goals than any other WSL side (8) and only Arsenal (9.15 xG) have limited their opponents’ chances from non-penalty situations more than than City (9.49 xG).

The Citizens’ incredible resistance has been key to helping them stay in contention for the title, and they are defending from the front too. So far this season, Man City have attempted the most shots from high turnovers (41), while the proportion of their total high turnovers ending in shots is also a league-high (19%), suggesting their pick and choose when to press with maximum effect. Gareth Taylor’s side also led the WSL for shot-ending high turnovers last season (62), with their high press something that his team are becoming well known for.

Man City Pressing WSL

Since the start of last season, Chelsea have faced Man City three times in the WSL and two of their lowest non-penalty xG totals in that time have come against Taylor’s team – 0.61 in September 2022 and 0.64 in March 2023. They’ve frustrated Chelsea before, and they could keep their attack at bay again this Friday.

James and Shaw Battle for Golden Boot

The race for the WSL 2023-24 Golden Boot features two of the hottest talents in women’s football. Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw and Lauren James could both be the gamechangers for their respective teams on Friday. Shaw is currently leading the race, netting 13 goals in 12 games for Man City, while James is just one goal behind, with 12 in as many appearances for Chelsea this season.

Jamaican international Shaw has set the WSL alight since she joined the league from Bordeaux in 2021.

Although last season saw her fall short of securing the top scorer award by two goals, after a phenomenal campaign by Aston Villa’s Rachel Daly (22 goals), Shaw has been the hottest scoring talent in the competition since her debut in September 2021. Since that game against Everton, where she made a scoring debut in a 4-0 win at Goodison Park, the City striker has a league-high tally of 42 goals in 51 games – remarkably just one of those have come from the penalty shot. She also leads the league in xG both overall (30.8) and from non-penalty shots (29.2), while only five players have bettered her assist tally of 13, meaning she also leads the WSL for total goal involvements (55) ahead of Chelsea’s Sam Kerr (48).

Khadija Shaw WSL Goal Involvements

Arguably no player has made a bigger impact on the WSL overall than Kerr, but she is ruled out injured long-term after an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury at a Chelsea training camp in January, which has added the pressure on England international James to perform for the Blues.

England star James has returned from last summer’s Women’s World Cup hungry to prove she can make the difference for both club and country. Her goal tally this season is just two off what she’d managed across her previous five WSL seasons combined (14 in 51 apps), showing how far the 22-year-old has progressed post-World Cup.

It’s both Shaw (0.71) and James (0.51) who lead the WSL this season for non-penalty xG per 90 (of players to have played at least 650 minutes), showing how much of a threat both will be to the opposition this weekend in front of goal.

Hayes will look to James to lead the charge for the Blues and she has not disappointed since returning from the Christmas break, scoring a hat-trick against Manchester United last month to keep the pressure on their top-four rivals followed by two more in the 2-0 away win at Brighton on 27 January.

James, however, was missing in last weekend’s FA Cup 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, with Hayes hopeful she would be back for the key fixtures to follow.

“She was a little bit sick, her tonsils were up and I decided not to take the risk,” said Hayes. “I told her to go home. She will be fine – you have to make those decisions knowing you’ve got some big games coming up.”

A Dynasty That May Not Be Repeated

No one expected this to be Hayes’ final season when the league kicked off in September, and her announcement that she would be leaving at the end of 2023-24 to take the USWNT job came as a shock.

During her magnificent tenure at the Blues, they have won six FA WSL titles, five Women’s FA Cups, two FA Women’s League Cups, one FA Women’s Spring Series trophy and one FA Women’s Community Shield.

Hayes has been an ambassador not only for the women’s team but her influence on Chelsea runs deep to its core, highlighted by her being named one of the trustees during the departure of owner Roman Abramovich in 2022. She has been a custodian the club has entrusted in so many areas across her time with the Blues.

Hayes admitted the United States role was the “only job” that could pry her away from Chelsea but make no mistake her desire to win and finish on a high is stronger than ever.

Chelsea are still in contention to win four trophies this season, including the biggest prize to elude Hayes in her managerial career so far: the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

Hayes’ record since the start of the 2018-19 season is quite remarkable. Over that period, she has a WSL win rate of 78.9% from 114 matches and the only manager in recent times to come anywhere close to her was Joe Montemurro, who matched 78.9%, albeit across exactly half the tally of matches (57). Hayes has registered a remarkable 2.50 points per WSL game in that time, with Chelsea’s players now hoping to give her a fitting send off.

Other Standout Players to Watch

With the disappointment of losing Kerr, Chelsea looked to the transfer market to ensure they had the firepower and depth to ensure success in their manager’s final season.

Mayra Ramírez joined from Spanish club Levante as the WSL’s most expensive player, a £384,000 deal that only trailed Racheal Kundananji’s move to Bay FC and Keira Walsh’s switch to Barcelona globally, and could go higher once add-ons are factored in.

A highly sought after forward, Ramírez shone in the first half of the season at Levante before her move to London, netting six goals in just seven league appearances.

In Chelsea’s 1-0 FA Cup win over Palace last weekend, Ramírez was a constant threat and attempted more shots (4) and accumulated a higher xG total (0.56) than any of her teammates as she went on to score the winner nine minutes from time. She is still waiting for her first league goal, but there would be no better time to open her account than on Friday night.

The player who could provide the chances for Ramírez and someone City will need to keep quiet is Fran Kirby. Only Chloe Kelly (30) has created more open-play chances in the WSL than Kirby (25) this season, while only Kelly (4.2) and Lauren Hemp (3.6) have a higher expected assists total than the Chelsea star (3.4).

Fran Kirby Chance Creation Chelsea

As for England duo Hemp and Kelly, they will be key to the chances of Taylor’s side.

Only Arsenal’s Victoria Pelova (5) has more assists than Kelly, while not only has she been prolific for chance creation for her teammates, but she’s also had more shots on target (25) than every other WSL player in 2023-24 so far.

Another outstanding contributor to City’s great season so far has been Khiara Keating, who will take confidence from her performance in the reverse fixture, when the goalkeeper was influential to keeping Hayes’ side at bay until their last-gasp leveller. Keating also thwarted Arsenal last weekend, making five saves in the FA Cup as City knocked the Gunners out with a 1-0 win.

She has conceded just eight goals in the WSL this season despite having faced 42 shots on target and has proved to be formidable in the City goal.

Khiara Keating Man City Saves

Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) model shows Keating has prevented 3.9 goals, which leads the WSL. Her fine form has forced out teammate Ellie Roebuck from the England set up and the City No.1 shirt, so Chelsea will have to be clinical in front of goal to get the upper hand on Keating.

Chelsea are desperate to be crowned champions once again but these two sides look more closely matched than ever in their race for the title.

This game is set to provide the biggest marker yet in the race to lift the WSL trophy, as Chelsea seek that magical number eight and City eye what would be a famous second crown.

Hayes won’t have forgotten a 2-0 loss that handed Man City with their first ever WSL crown in 2016 and she won’t want to see her side hand them another opportunity to be champions.

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