Second half of WSL season preview: Intriguing battle for top three and close title race in store, but can anyone end champions Chelsea’s dominance?

The top-flight action returns this weekend with a top-of-the-table clash between Arsenal and Chelsea on Sunday that could be key to the title fight. While rock-bottom Leicester’s predicament means the pressure is off the teams from eighth to 11th in the table, there’s been a flurry of activity early in the January transfer window as the WSL big guns prepare for a tough battle for Champions League places, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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The Women’s Super League resumes on Saturday after more than a month-long break with the top half looking tantalisingly poised and the bottom half looking – well, rather flat. Whilst the race for the Champions League spots should keep us all suitably occupied for the next four months, if you are not one of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea, how much do you really have to play for?

With only one relegation spot, the WSL fairly regularly has little to offer in terms of threat, and this year feels more like the case than ever before. Leicester are bottom, having lost every single game they have played so far this season and scored only two goals in the process. Barring a minor miracle – there are supposed to be incomings but they have not arrived yet – it is hard to see them making up the seven-point gap to Brighton and Reading.

That means that the teams from eighth to 11th can breathe a sigh of relief. If you are Brighton, Reading, Liverpool or Tottenham, you can head into 2023 rest assured that as long as you show up enough in a couple more games, you will be playing WSL football next season. Teams have little incentive, or threat, to really push in the second half of the season. Until the league introduces an extra relegation spot – or a play-off between whoever finishes second bottom in the WSL and second top in the Championship – there will continue to be this risk.

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That being said, there might be an incentive for certain managers to show they are improving. Rehanne Skinner cannot say she has not been backed at Tottenham, with a bumper summer of signings being added to with a WSL record fee paid to recruit Bethany England from Chelsea. One can only assume that Spurs had spent the end of 2022 looking enviously at Aston Villa and West Ham as Rachel Daly and Viviane Asseyi respectively banged in the goals. Tottenham’s summer striker signing Nikola Karczewska has managed as few minutes as well… England at Chelsea! Skinner surely has no excuse now not to be able to construct a threatening attack.

Carla Ward has had no such issue at Aston Villa with the consistency of her front three of Daly, Alisha Lehmann and Kirsty Hanson being a notable difference from Spurs’ approach. It feels fitting that these two sides meet on the first weekend back having been the teams to really splash the cash during the transfer window. Villa’s decision to bring in Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth feels like a very smart way to rotate within attacking areas without having to rely on either for significant minutes. Right now, they certainly feel like favourites to finish ‘best of the rest’.

At the top of the table, the title race does still feel like anyone’s to go and win. How much a potential Champions League run for either Arsenal or Chelsea might affect them remains an open question, whilst Manchester United’s early exit from the Continental Cup frees up their midweeks. Even Manchester City are only five points off Arsenal with the two sides due to play each other in their rearranged opening fixture at the start of February.

The impact of Sunday’s match between Arsenal and Chelsea could be key. If the champions were to win and set up a legitimate points gap with the Gunners, as opposed to the one they have right now based off of having played an extra game, it would look a little bit ominous given the Blues’ pedigree in the league. For all that Emma Hayes’ side are susceptible to occasional wobbles, over the past three seasons they have shown that they can hold on to even the smallest leads in a commanding manner.

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Arsenal probably are the biggest question mark of all four of those sides. The absences of Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema is going to be a problem that persists for many months, and there will be little time for some of their new recruits to get up to speed. They also still have five of their six games against their title rivals to play, having lost their only one so far to Manchester United. That confident win over Lyon in the Champions League group stage now feels distant, although beating Chelsea would be the perfect boost.

Manchester United will have to show that they are capable of finally being the brides, having missed out narrowly on Champions League qualification in the past two seasons. They have played all three of their rivals once already which could prove a big benefit as they have looked confident against the smaller teams – and picking up four points in the process is nothing to be sniffed at. Manchester City, meanwhile, probably feel like the break came at the worst time for them as they got into their groove. But question marks remain as to whether they can pick up the points they will need against their rivals to make it into the Champions League.

This feels like the tightest race for the title in a while with such a wide range of factors potentially affecting all of the sides involved. It would be to the long-term benefit of the league if someone were able to end Chelsea’s hegemony, but as things currently stand it still feels hard to bet against them.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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