With the new WSL season upon us, Neil Evans evaluates defending champions, Chelsea Ladies, and believes that Karen Carney is the key to defending their crown.
Team: Chelsea Ladies
Home: Wheatsheaf Park, Staines Town FC
Manager: Emma Hayes
2015: WSL1 Champions
After the heartbreak of losing the 2014 title on the final day, the Blues made no mistake last term with a first ever title. An emphatic 4-0 final-day win over Sunderland meant that Emma Hayes’ side had reached the pinnacle of the domestic game by becoming champions of England. With the Women’s FA Cup already in the trophy cabinet after Ji So Yun’s winner decided the first final to be played at Wembley, Chelsea completed a famous double.
But staying on top is an altogether different proposition. Chelsea Ladies will be there to be shot at, with eight other teams determined to take them down. Arsenal and Manchester City, both strong contenders in 2014, have strengthened significantly meaning that Hayes’ team must start strongly in their live televised match on Thursday, March 24 at the Keepmoat against newly-promoted Doncaster Rovers Belles. For Chelsea supporters, the early signs are promising as they eased into the Women’s FA Cup quarter-final and will be favourites to progress with a home tie against Aston Villa Ladies.
In Hayes, they have a manager with over a decade’s experience in management and a large backroom staff able to meet the players every needs. On the pitch, Hedvig Lindahl is arguably the WSL’s most complete goalkeeper and a commanding and reassuring presence. They have an excellent back-up in Becky Spencer, signed from Birmingham, who would start for many other teams. The byword throughout is quality in this Chelsea squad. The club have depth at every position, essential in bettering their last 16 UWCL last time.
At the back, Chelsea have huge talent at their disposal. Claire Rafferty is a dependable left-back and can also play on the left side of midfield. Gilly Flaherty epitomises the solid centre-back and has formed a strong partnership with Niamh Fahey. Hannah Blundell has rightly attracted lots of attention for her quality and has come through the ranks to become a star full-back, mainly on the right side. With Ana Borges another option at full-back, the Portuguese international is another player comfortable with the possession-style game that Hayes likes to play. German international Anne Meiwald’s versatility across the back is a massive plus for the demands ahead. Laura Coombs has been allowed out on loan for the domestic season, which says a lot about Chelsea’s strength in depth.
They are also fortunate to have WSL’s standout South Korean midfielder in Ji. The 2013 WSL player of the season is just as content mopping up in front of central
defence as she is supporting the strikers and consistently turns in high quality displays. Katie Chapman combines tough tackling with an impressive range of passing and her creativity is complemented by the more defensively-minded Jade Bailey. But Chelsea’s major coup was in securing the services of former Birmingham City winger Karen Carney, who is a complete package. With bags of energy and resolve backed up with goals and an ability to turn a game in an instant, the England stalwart recently clocked up her 100th cap. Drew Spence is superb in the air and, like Millie Bright, they contribute hugely to the Chelsea cause.
The forward line consists of Eni Aluko’s seering pace, which is a nightmare for any defender and she has added a more consistent end product to her game. Gemma Davison is officially the ‘wizard of the dribble’ having beaten more opponents one-on-one than any other WSL player in 2015. Given that Carney can also play upfront, Hayes’ biggest issue might be who she leaves out and that’s before I mention Fran Kirby. Her meteoric rise from WSL2 to full England international has been breathtaking. She is rightly referred to as the ‘mini-Messi’ with her low centre of gravity, composure and clinical finishing establishing her as one of the country’s finest strikers. Beth England and U17 international, Alessia Russo, completes a squad laden with quality.
I can’t see any major weaknesses in this Chelsea squad. Only once, at Sunderland, did the Blues allow their high standards to slip in 2015 and with the extra two fixtures, they can afford the odd mistake. From back to front, Hayes has multiple options at her disposal. When a major talent like Millie Farrow can be sent on loan to Bristol, that is proof enough that this team is well-equipped to defend its title. For me, it is the signing of Carney, who has the X-Factor and is capable of those ‘wow’ moments, that will separate the champions from the contenders. I think Chelsea can follow the recent pattern of back-to-back titles achieved by Liverpool, and Arsenal and claim the WSL crown.
First Game: Doncaster Rovers Belles (A) 24th March 2016, live on BT Sport 1, kick-off 7.15pm
Key Player: Ji So-Yun
Prediction: Champions WSL1