As years go, 2020 wasn’t bad for Chelsea Women.
They only lost once in 12 months, completed a WSL and Continental Cup double and broke the women’s transfer world record to land Pernille Harder.
2021 has big shoes to fill, and it may just be 21 days old, but it’s already looking very good for Chelsea.
The Blues kicked the year off with a 5-0 thumping of Reading – Fran Kirby the four-goal hero – and gathered pace with a 2-1 win over Manchester United. Chelsea ended the Red Devils’ unbeaten league record and leapfrogged them at the summit of the WSL in the process. Kirby was again the match winner.
Captain Magdalena Eriksson, UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Pernille Harder, PFA Player of the Year Beth England and one of the most technically gifted players in the WSL, Ji So-yun, were all left out of the starting XI for their victory over Reading. That’s one outrageous bench.
Kirby – in the form of her life this term – dropped to the bench for Chelsea’s Continental Cup quarter final clash with highflying Manchester City on Wednesday evening. It wasn’t a problem.
The England international remained an unused substitute for the entire 90 minutes, as three other players were called upon from the bench to make a telling impact – players who have played more of a restricted role thus far this season – as Chelsea flexed their outrageous squad depth.
Niamh Charles signed from relegated Liverpool in the summer and at 21-years-old is still very much considered one for the future, a nod to the long-term vision that Emma Hayes has for the Blues.
The Liverpool academy product was a rare bright spark in the Reds’ 2019/20 relegation campaign, her fearlessness, balance and ability to go past a player not dissimilar to that of Manchester City’s Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly. England will not be short of quality wide options for years to come thanks to the trio.
Given her age and the wealth of wide options at Hayes’ disposal, Charles has understandably been used more sparingly by the Blues this season – although her athleticism and first touch impressed on a rare WSL start against Reading at the start of the year.
However, with Chelsea trailing 2-1 to City, Charles popped up in the 90th minute with a moment of pure magic. The winger took fellow substitute Guro Reiten’s dinked down on her chest, swivelled and sent a stunning volley arching over the outstretched glove of Karen Bardsley and into the top corner. Absolutely class.
In extra time, it was two of Chelsea’s star performers from last season’s title-winning campaign who have played more of a bit part this term who proved to be the match winners.
Reiten and Sophie Ingle – both regular starters last season – have seen their minutes more restricted this campaign, Reiten due to the sheer volume of attacking talent at Chelsea and Ingle due to the arrival of German midfielder Melanie Leupolz (who was characteristically excellent against City).
Like Charles, the pair were introduced from the bench in the second half at the Academy Stadium. Reiten put Chelsea ahead in the 94th minute with a stretching finish before Ingle attempted to rival Charles for goal of the game, coming onto Reiten’s perfectly weighted lay off and sending a spectacular effort into the top corner.
It is a testament to Hayes’ shrewd player management that she has been able to keep Charles, Reiten and Ingle – players who would start every week in the majority of WSL sides – happy despite giving them a more sporadic amount of game time, allowing her to effortlessly call upon them to turn in a match winning performance.