Sam Kerr, Lauren James and Erin Cuthbert earned champions Chelsea a 3-1 victory at Manchester United to keep them level with WSL leaders Arsenal, and end their hosts’ unbeaten start.
Chelsea had the better of the few chances before they took the lead, with Pernille Harder nodding a free header wide, and they could have had a first-half penalty when Maya Le Tissier appeared to catch Guro Reiten.
United’s defence had been watertight so far this season, but was far from it to allow the WSL champions to score first on the hour mark, with a poor pass picked off by Sophie Ingle and worked to Kerr to dispatch home clinically.
Barely two minutes later they added another, as Kerr latched onto a long ball and, after holding the ball up, found James in the area to net on her first return to her former club.
Alessia Russo, returning from injury for her first start since September, reduced the deficit from another piece of uncharacteristically poor defending, but United never built on that platform.
Instead Cuthbert’s deflected effort in added time secured victory for the visitors to lift them joint level with leaders Arsenal, who have played a game fewer. United’s first dropped points of the season leaves them three points off the pace in third.
Chelsea general manager Paul Green, taking charge in the continued absence of Emma Hayes for personal reasons, told Sky Sports after full-time he was hopeful she would return for the Blues’ next game against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on November 20.
“We go into the international break hopefully ready to welcome Emma Hayes back to the touchline for our next game, if everything goes well, against Tottenham,” he said. “We’re delighted and congratulating everyone on a really good piece of work.”
How Chelsea ended Man Utd’s perfect start
United edged the opening exchanges at Leigh Sports Village as they looked to show they had closed the gap to Chelsea and Arsenal at the top of the WSL, but faced a lucky escape from the first major flashpoint midway through the opening period.
Le Tissier initially looked to have made a superb challenge on Reiten, but on closer inspection may have tripped the Norwegian and been lucky to escape conceding a penalty.
“It’s good defending to hold her up, get her to do something; but it’s a little bit clumsy too. Reiten doesn’t appeal, she slips too and maybe that’s what stops it being anything more,” said Sky Sports’ Sue Smith.
Harder should have removed any sense of injustice with a free header from a Kerr cross, but planted it wide of the far post with the goal at her mercy.
Kerr raised a wry smile after she was jeered by the home support when slipping on the wet grass soon after half-time, and soon had her payback when Millie Turner’s pass out of defence was intercepted and fed to her. The Australian made no mistake from 15 yards, slotting past Mary Earps for the opener.
She had a hand in Chelsea’s second moments later too, bringing down a long ball into the channel, waiting for support and teeing up James whose smart finish across Earps put the Blues in full control.
United’s fears of being overrun only lasted seven minutes before they gave themselves hope. Cuthbert’s awful pass was picked off by Ella Toone and worked to Russo, who coolly beat the onrushing Ann-Katrin Berger.
Instead of pushing for an equaliser from there, United found themselves on the back foot again, with Kerr guilty of missing a gilt-edged chance to seal victory.
The tension did remain until added time at least, when Cuthbert made up for her earlier error with a deflected effort finding its way past Earps to ensure Chelsea keep pace with Arsenal at the top of the table.
Green hopeful Hayes will be back after international break
Chelsea general manager Paul Green to Sky Sports:
“I think we found a way in the second half. For 15 or 20 minutes when we went 2-0 up, I thought some of the football we played was outstanding. I think we thoroughly deserved the win and we were congratulating the group on this period of games with Denise (Reddy) and myself in charge.
“To come through unscathed and win every game is a testament to everyone involved, players and staff, and we go into the international break hopefully ready to welcome Emma Hayes back to the touchline for our next game, if everything goes well, against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge. We’re delighted and congratulating everyone on a really good piece of work.
“All of [the games] are difficult in their own way but this game and the one against PSG away were two that came out and you thought ‘we’re going to have to be at our best and find a way to win’, and I think we did in the second half. We did enough and showed why we are champions of England.
“Lauren James is a top player, we just had to be patient and build her slowly and get her right off the pitch last season, learning from senior players that we’ve got really helped her when she wasn’t seeing much of the pitch last season. But this season, she’s been electric. You saw it again tonight, every time she got the ball, you expected something to happen and she was the real bright spark for us. She thoroughly deserved the goal.”
Carney: Utd errors to blame for first defeat
Sky Sports’ Karen Carney:
“Marc Skinner looks disappointed because you organise your team and then mistakes cost your side. The goals came in a few minutes and it was concentration, their own mistakes, their own errors.
“I feel like they are getting closer. Chelsea make mistakes and they don’t get punished or they can figure their way out of it. It will be disappointing for Man Utd, but, overall, Chelsea were the better side, more experienced and more resilient, but they are getting closer.”
Manchester United have another huge game at the top of the WSL when they head to title rivals Arsenal on Saturday November 19, live on Sky Sports. Kick-off is at 5.30pm.
After the international break, Chelsea host Tottenham on Sunday, November 20 at 1pm.