Emma Hayes declares WSL title race over as Liverpool stun Chelsea in seven-goal thriller

Chelsea lost 4-3 to Liverpool in the WSL

If it was Chelsea's narrow defeat at Prenton Park last season that served to put some fire in the bellies of Emma Hayes' players, then it was at the same venue this term where that flame was extinguished.

The Blues have three games left to play in the Women's Super League (WSL) before their revered boss swaps the Kingsmeadow dugout for the shores of the USA, but the chances of them crowning Hayes' stellar tenure with a fifth consecutive league title now look perilously slim after a last-gasp 4-3 defeat to Liverpool on Merseyside.

It was a game the visitors were winning in the ninth minute and losing in the 81st before the spoils looked destined to be shared thanks to a Teagan Micah own goal seven minutes from time. But a late, late header from former Chelsea defender Gemma Bonner saw the Blues condemned to their third WSL defeat of the season and staring down the barrel of their first trophyless campaign in half a decade.

No team has ever won the title after losing more than twice, and the champions' hopes of bucking that trend this term do not appear likely. And perhaps it would not be too outlandish to suggest that the Chelsea boss knew that something like this was on the cards.

Three days after her team's gut-wrenching Champions League exit, Hayes sat in front of the media and declared that her team of perennial winners should be viewed as underdogs heading into this season's final stretch.

"We are not in the driving seat, we don't have the goal difference, we have to catch up," she said in her pre-match press conference - a fair comment, perhaps, when you consider that City, who had played two games more than Chelsea before proceedings got underway at Prenton Park, had a goal difference of +46 compared to the Blues' +39.

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But the more cynical viewpoint would be that Hayes, one of the most experienced coaches in the women's game, knew exactly what she was doing by declaring Gareth Taylor's side favourites. With the margin for error in the title race so slim, there is perhaps some wisdom in piling all the pressure on a team that has not managed to top the table since 2016.

Certainly, Chelsea did not start off looking like a side ready to accept defeat on Wednesday night. The Blues, bolstered by the return of captain Millie Bright to the starting lineup after a five-month injury layoff, came out swinging against Matt Beard's team and took an early lead through an Aggie Beever-Jones header.

The striker has been relegated to something of a supporting role in recent weeks, but she marked her return to the XI by diverting Catarina Macario's corner delivery into the back of the net to get Chelsea off to the perfect start. And the visitors almost had themselves a quickfire double when Sjoeke Nusken snuck in behind the Liverpool back line, with her volleyed effort smartly palmed to safety by Micah.

Liverpool rallied well, though, perhaps buoyed by the memory of what happened the last time Chelsea ventured to Prenton Park. The Blues had taken an early lead that day too, before Katie Stengel's brace from the spot saw Hayes' side return to west London empty-handed.

Certainly, the warning signs were there on Wednesday night, with both Emma Koivisto and Taylor Hinds going close before Sophie Roman Haug's header six minutes into the second half saw parity restored on Merseyside. In that moment, the seeds of panic were sown and thus ensued 40 minutes of glorious chaos that will see this contest go down as the undisputed game of the season.

As both teams went in keen pursuit of the three points, Bonner gave Liverpool the lead with a superb header before Beever-Jones bundled in her second of the night in the 80th minute. But, just as it was starting to look like a Chelsea resurrection was on the cards, substitute Leanne Kiernan finished coolly past Hampton to restore the hosts' advantage.

The Blues showed admirable fight to force Micah into a late error; however, the football gods simply weren't on Chelsea's side, with Bonner rising highest to nod home the winner in the 92nd minute. And, as the Liverpool fans jubilantly swirled their red flags inside Prenton Park, Hayes - publicly at least - waved her white one, conceding that the defeat was most probably a fatal blow to her team's title hopes.

"It's been a tough, tough run of fixtures," she told reporters after the game. "We lost three players coming into tonight and players who have played game after game - Jess (Carter), Niamh (Charles) Erin (Cuthbert) - they look absolutely exhausted. I'm not going to be harsh on the players with everything they've delivered over a long period of time.

"I know they wanted to do it, I know they want to win the title and all of those things but it's not to be I'm afraid but I want to make sure for the remainder we just keep pushing and we finish the season as strongly as we can."

Finishing the campaign with a flourish is, of course, much easier said than done. As the Chelsea players left the pitch on Wednesday night, their anguish was palpable.

Goalkeeper Hampton dropped to her haunches while Bright consoled a tearful Cuthbert. Almost every player looked emotionally and physically spent and the pain of this defeat - and of failing to give Hayes the perfect send-off - will continue to rankle for some time.

But, once the dust has settled, the Chelsea boss' legacy will not be defined by this; by tears and bowed heads in the Merseyside drizzle. After 12 stellar years, she has earned the right to enjoy her last few games. Her players, at least, must make sure of that.