English women’s football has had a growth spurt in 2022 – but after pre-match scenes at the Emirates Stadium demonstrated some of its growing pains, Arsenal and Chelsea have also shown why the Women’s Super League remains so competitive.
A total of 46,811 tickets were sold, with ominous views of crowds packed outside the stadium at kick-off as fans struggled to get into the ground.
Holloway Road and Arsenal tube stations were closed due to overcrowding, meaning many fans had to walk further from Finsbury Park, leaving it very difficult to get lunch started.
A statement from Arsenal said the matchday operation was the same as for other matches, but an early kick-off and late arrival of fans led to busy turnstiles.
Once the supporters were on the ground, they witnessed a close and tense match which was announced to be decided by a penalty – before a late moment of combined magic from Jelena Cankovic and Sam Kerr.
Brought in from the bench 10 minutes earlier, Cankovic curled a perfect cross from the edge of the six-yard box, which the Aussie drove home for her sixth WSL goal of the season – and Chelsea’s 32nd strike in 11 appearances .
In the 88th minute, Arsenal had taken control of the WSL title race thanks to Kim Little’s opening kick.
But just a minute later, and at the end of Sunday’s games, they had been dropped to third place after being overtaken by Manchester United who beat Liverpool 6-0 at Leigh Sports Village.
Arsenal, Chelsea and United have lost just one game this season – Chelsea’s came on opening day at Liverpool in September.
The title race is now more open than ever, with the Blues leading by three points, but United and Arsenal are one game less.
“The good news is you can sell more newspapers – and the headline will go to the last day as always,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said after the draw at Arsenal.
“Coming today I knew Arsenal would have their strongest team, it was their best opportunity and as such it was a big point for us.”
It was impossible to separate Arsenal and Chelsea in the WSL era. In 23 meetings, the two have won nine each and there have now been five draws.
Arsenal and Chelsea have won the last six WSL titles between them, with Hayes’ side claiming five, including the previous three.
Only one point separated them in the final standings last season. It seems likely the margin will be just as close this time – making both the decision to award the penalty and Kerr’s last-minute intervention all the more significant.
Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall was still in an optimistic mood afterwards, playing his personal best against Chelsea and the relative strength of the two teams.
He said: “You have two teams who have won their group in the Champions League. Both teams can reach the semi-finals, so they are among the top four teams in European football.
“European football is the best, so they are two of the best teams in the world. That’s what you see today and we put in a solid performance.
“We’ve faced them three times in the WSL under me and we’ve gone unbeaten – and every game we could have won. These performances give me hope and faith for the future.”
The significance of the point for Chelsea was clear in Hayes’ celebrations when Kerr’s header hit the back of the net, leaping from his seat and slamming into the air with both fists.
“I swore three times, and my son is going to watch this and see mom swear,” she said.
“For us to come here and not be at our best is an incredible point.”
It was Arsenal’s third WSL game at the Emirates Stadium in 2022-23.
They beat Tottenham 4-0 in September in front of a WSL record crowd of 47,367, while 40,064 attended the 3-2 loss to United in November.
The result means the Gunners have now picked up just four from nine points in front of those outstanding Emirates crowds, including throwing away winning positions against the two title rivals, having also led 2-1 against United before a comeback. breathtaking.
“It’s impressive that this is our third well-attended WSL match – hopefully we can play better with the crowd,” added Eidevall.
“The more we do this, the more fortress we can create. You can also see players becoming more comfortable engaging with the crowd. We need to create that bond together.”
With Arsenal set for big European nights and another title race in 2023, there will be plenty more big games to come at the Emirates Stadium. But now they need to start delivering results that match the odds.