There was only one winner from the first goalless draw between Chelsea and Arsenal since 2015; the title race.
“It was a very entertaining game. I think it’s the best that has been played in the league so far,” said Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall. The Gunners remain two points clear of Chelsea with the points shared, but the Blues have a game in hand.
“Because of really good defensive play neither team gets the win but both teams had good chances. I am disappointed, but I am very biased. Football and the WSL is the winner of games like this. There was only one thing wrong and that it was played in front of an audience of 3,000 and not 30,000. If more games are like this then we will be the best league in the world,” added Eidevall.
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes agreed that the draw was fair – “Yeah, I think so,” she said – but was left ruing a late penalty shout, after the ball deflected off Arsenal centre-back Leah Williamson’s raised arm in added time.
“The talking point will be a penalty that wasn’t given though. From our perspective it was a clear penalty. The whole stadium felt it was, even the Arsenal bench probably did. Rebecca Welch didn’t feel she saw enough of an arm, she saw an arm, she looked at Leah Williamson and asked: ‘Did you handball it?’ and she said: ‘Of course I didn’t’. It seems ridiculous, an official is asking a player that question, but an outstanding official, the best we have in our league, who missed a big decision.” Eidevall pointed to a possible penalty for Caitlin Foord in the first half when asked about the decision late on.
Having limped through Christmas and New Year after a blistering start to the season, Arsenal’s form seems to be improving.
After Arsenal duo Vivianne Miedema and Stina Blackstenius combined in emphatic fashion against Manchester United to earn a draw last week, Eidevall began the game with the former in the No 10 role behind the Swedish forward, while Rafaelle partnered Williamson at the back.
Hayes has had her squad stretched too. Ji So Yun and Sam Kerr both competed at the Asian Cup, while injuries to captain Magda Eriksson and Beth England, and Melanie Leupolz’s battle with long covid have all taken a toll.
Despite the protestations of Hayes that the title would not be decided at Kingsmeadow, the mood told a different story, with the sell-out crowd rippling with expectation, the directors’ box bulging and tensions high.
Although Chelsea started fastest, with the Blues perhaps hoping to mirror their third minute goal in the FA Cup final in December against the Gunners, it was the visiting team that looked the more cohesive unit in the first half.
In the 20th minute Arsenal went closest, a short corner was worked to Rafaelle at the back post and the Brazilian headed down to Miedema whose effort smacked back off the post.
This was a much cagier affair than the five goal thriller edged by Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in September, but the stakes were higher.
Hayes is not known for providing a half-time hairdryer treatment, instead preferring to make tactical tweaks while her players to work out what’s gone wrong, and Chelsea returned to the field with the purpose of a side more aware that they could take the advantage in the title race for the first time with a win.
With Chelsea midfielder Sophie Ingle staying tight to Miedema the fluidity of Arsenal’s play was disrupted.
A double chance in the 56th minute should have put the home team ahead. Pernille Harder’s cross was swung at and missed by Kerr before Kirby’s shot was blocked.
Both teams sought the winner with gusto in the final minutes. An Arsenal free-kick from Frida Maanum in the 88th minute led to a scramble in the box, with Millie Bright and Ann-Katrin Berger both clearing off the line and, in the lengthy eight minutes of added time, the home team should have had a penalty as Niamh Charles’s cross deflected down off of the raised arm of Williamson.
“It’s too tight to call it,” said Hayes of the title race. “If I was sitting here having won or lost it I’d say the same things. It’s hard to keep producing all the time and I do think there will be twists and turns. I stand by my statement.”