The defending champions, Chelsea, were held at Manchester United in their opening game of the WSL season, a late equaliser from Leah Galton earning the home side a deserved point and rather spoiling Pernille Harder’s debut. The costliest signing in women’s football was waiting to come on when United pulled their goal back, though did enough in the 10 minutes she was allowed to suggest she might have been usefully deployed somewhat earlier.
“Clearly we are not at our best yet, we lacked a bit of aggression,” said the Chelsea head coach, Emma Hayes. “That said, I mentioned beforehand that I’d take a draw here. We knew United would be well organised and hard to break down and that’s what we found.”
The game had been fairly evenly contested before Chelsea broke the deadlock midway through the first half. Shots from Jane Ross and Sam Kerr that went narrowly wide at either end had been the only semblance of goalmouth action until Ji So-yun and Maren Mjelde launched an attack down the right. Suddenly Fran Kirby was running into space on an unprotected United flank, and her inviting low cross was confidently stuck away by Kerr on the six-yard line.
Scoring would have been a relief for the normally reliable Australian striker after her hesitant performance in the Community Shield against Manchester City, while just playing was a breakthrough for Kirby, out of the game for almost a year after a serious bout of pericarditis during which she was told she might never play again.
Kerr had the ball in the net again a minute later, this time losing her marker once more to meet an excellent Guro Reiten cross from the left, only to be brought back by an offside flag. Even though the goal did not count it was another illustration of the way Chelsea can strike quickly without necessarily applying prolonged pressure. United were just as neat and competitive in midfield, but lacked the decisive pass in the final third.
Ross ran about with purpose, pressing high up the pitch and occasionally hurrying Chelsea defenders into mistakes, though she would have preferred a snappier service from the players just behind her. When United did create a clear chance right at the end of the first half, after Kirsty Hanson crossed from the right and a looping header from Galton came down on Carly Telford’s bar, there was no real power in the effort and the goalkeeper had it covered.
Chelsea could have gone further ahead at the start of the second half when Kerr met Mjelde’s cross at the near post but put the ball over the bar, though United began to assert themselves a little more as the hour mark approached. Partly that was due to left-back Ona Batlle becoming more involved in the game. Though notionally a defender she proved effective going forward, both in her ability to go past opponents and to pick out teammates in promising positions. Making her United debut the Spanish full-back beat Mjelde with ease on one occasion but ended up shooting wastefully wide, then she set up Ella Toone for a shot that Telford did well to keep out with a one-handed save.
The visitors made a couple of substitutions early in the second half but left £250,000 capture Harder on the bench until 10 minutes from time. By then Chelsea might have made the game safe but for two notable saves from Mary Earps to deny Erin Cuthbert, the last a point-blank stop to prevent a certain goal. As it was, Chelsea’s record buy from Wolfsburg came on with the scores level, United having stirred themselves to equalise through an incisive move down the right. In what was virtually a carbon copy of Chelsea’s goal Toone set Jackie Groenen free down the right, for a cross that was neatly tucked away by Galton in front of goal.
Chelsea attacked with renewed determination to try and retrieve the situation, and succeeded in creating one or two half-chances in the United area. Unfortunately none of them fell to Harder, who did show her pedigree with a powerful late surges to set up stoppage-time opportunities Cuthbert and then Kirby could not quite accept, but will have to wait for her first win with her new club. A draw was fair enough in the end. While Chelsea always seemed to have more goals in them a gutsy United performance was worth a point.