The start of a new campaign always promises something different. Fresh challenges, different faces and revamped opponents. Some things, however, remain the same as Chelsea beat Tottenham, goals from Mia Fishel and Lauren James earning them all the points with a late strike from Martha Thomas narrowing the deficit.
Chelsea have their sights set on a fifth-straight WSL title and a continuation of their domination at the top of English women’s football. An opening-day fixture in front of over 14,000 fans against a team that finished ninth last year looked straightforward on paper. However, Emma Hayes would have been aware of the potential stumbling block.
“We all know the league’s improving,” Hayes said. “Today’s results and performances across the league suggests that, which is what we all crave. To win, knowing we haven’t really had a lot of training time together as a team as a whole ... I think the game reflected that.”
Hayes has made pragmatic additions to her team. With Sam Kerr absent and Fran Kirby returning to full fitness, there were two new faces. Fishel, the highly-rated young forward, was handed a first start, while Germany’s Sjoeke Nüsken took up a central role.
In comparison, Tottenham came in with unknowns. Robert Vilahamn was appointed as their manager in early July. He named three summer signings, Martha Thomas, Olga Ahtinen and Luana Bühler, in his lineup, while Grace Clinton, on loan from Manchester United, took up her place in the middle.
Vilahamn had promised a more aggressive Tottenham and his side looked full of energy. It was Chelsea, though, who had the earliest chance when Molly Bartrip cleared Jess Carter’s flick off the line. Spurs were not afraid to counter with Drew Spence linking the play. Her passes through to Thomas were looking particularly dangerous, with the defensive line looking penetrable.
As the half wore on, Chelsea began to hit their groove. Niamh Charles and Guro Reiten’s partnership down the left was the focal point as they put Angharad James, an unconventional right-back, under pressure. It was little surprise that this was where the opener came from. Charles rampaged past her marker before lifting in a cross that Fishel rose to head past the helpless Becky Spencer.
“Mia’s one player who’s been with us the whole pre-season,” Hayes said. “I think it’s really helped her ... I still think there’s other steps for her to take ... but she’s really smart and I thought she grew in the game.”
It was a goal that seemed to shake Spurs and they began to sit deeper, inviting the hosts on to them as half-time loomed. They did, however, have a chance to equalise deep in injury time, as Zecira Musovic produced a fine save to keep out Thomas again.
Chelsea returned re-energised and determined to put the game to bed. They peppered Spurs’s goal with shots before James finally made it count. She had been denied by the woodwork minutes earlier but there was nothing stopping this one, a sublime volley off a Charles cross. It was a trademark goal for the young England forward.
Both managers rang the changes and the game became a scrappy affair. Spurs found a lifeline with 15 minutes to play when Clinton, always dangerous from distance, took aim with a driven shot. The otherwise impeccable Musovic spilled the ball, allowing Thomas to pounce and open her account for her new club.
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Vilahamn was pleased with his team’s character. “What I saw was a quite even game even if they had some really good chances,” he said. “I think that our fans are happy that we’re actually taking steps with how we want Tottenham to play football, even if they’re not happy that we lose.”
Chelsea thought they had killed the game when Jelena Cankovic, on as a substitute, scored what she thought was a third goal, only for it to be ruled out for offside. Even so, the champions showed their experience as they saw out the game for their eighth straight victory over their London rivals.