By Neil Evans.
Last season Chelsea almost won the title war but the battles lost before the final match cost them greatly. It’s going to be difficult for Emma Hayes and her women to emulate the same heroics and win the title this season.
The television pictures said it all. Players and staff slumped on the Manchester turf crestfallen and bemused after defeat ended their title dreams. Going into that fateful day Chelsea had one hand on the trophy, a grip they relinquished. A closer look at their form, going into the final game, shows that Chelsea didn’t blow it on that last Sunday. They lost three of their last four WSL 1 games; remember, they lost four games in all season. And the stark reality was that the blues lost the league because they lost their nerve well before the final day. There was the consolation of securing a Champions League place with their second place finish. But that was rather like losing £100 pounds and finding a pound coin.
The question that hangs in the air going into this new season is how can Chelsea possibly pick themselves up from this? Manager Emma Hayes will have to use all her considerable knowledge and skills to pick up the spirit. They don’t have the motivation of being ‘robbed’ as they were the architects of their own downfall. Hayes has been recruiting during the off-season and a strong looking squad certainly suggests another title push.
At the back, Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindhal has been signed from Kristianstads DFF and the four-time Swedish ‘Goalkeeper of the Year’ is a fine acquisition. Her backup Marie Hourihan isn’t exactly shabby either and is an able understudy. Defensively last season, the Blues were sound letting in just 16 in 14 games. Niamh Fahey has joined from Arsenal and joins her former team mate Gilly Flaherty and is a proven, top-level pro. Claire Rafferty is an exciting left-sided defender/midfielder and Hannah Blundell has graduated from Chelsea’s Centre of Excellence. One to watch is Laura Rafferty (no relation to Claire) who has been signed from Hampshire’s Centre of Excellence.
In midfield, Chelsea are very strong. WSL player of the season Ji So Yun deservedly earned plenty of plaudits after nine goals in all competitions. A remarkable achievement when you consider the off field challenges she faced (culture, language etc) whilst adjusting to a new football league. Ji was a real star and was ably assisted by Katie Chapman (over 80 England caps), Jackie Groenen and Laura Coombs. Emma Hayes can also, this season, call on the current WSL2 ‘Player of the Season’, Millie Bright signed from Doncaster. Drew Spence and Jodie Brett complete a promising engine room.
But it’s up front where Chelsea have the ‘X-Factor’. Eni Aluko’s recent wonder goal in the Cyprus Cup demonstrates a player at the absolute peak of her powers. Not only is she prolific having played every minute of last season, she is durable and intelligent as well. Not a bad pundit on the box either! Gemma Davison has moved south from Liverpool and the 27 year old wouldn’t have left the defending champions without good reason. Expect to see lots more from exciting winger Ana Marques Borges, signed mid 2014. The Portuguese international should see a lot more game time, and ought to supply plenty of ammunition for Eluko and company. One other signing of note is another Swede, Maria Mardinho Banusic. Only 19 years old but already a full international, she might well be the wild-card that surprises in 2015.
Chelsea are not there to make up the numbers and they have recruited well. I think Emma Hayes’ side had their best opportunity last time. A number of big-name players have left (Rachel Williams, Yuki Ogimi to name but two) and I think the squad is slightly weaker than in 2014. They will certainly challenge for sure and a trophy of some sort is a real possibility. But, for me I can’t see them as champions.
2015 Prediction: 4th
Key Player: Eni Aluko
Chelsea Ladies begin their 2015 WSL season away v Notts County (Meadow Lane) on March 29th, kick-off 17.00.
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