When Chelsea hosts Manchester City at Kingsmeadow for the first time this Sunday, it will be the eighth FA Women’s Super League meeting between the two sides since the latter were fast-tracked into the top tier back in 2014.
Amazingly, given Chelsea’s status as a regular challenger and title winner in 2015 under Emma Hayes, the hosts haven’t beaten their rivals since the first meeting between the two in July 2014. Nick Cushing’s side have won five of the previous seven meetings, including the last three without even conceding a goal.
Two players who know this fixture better than most are Chelsea’s Gilly Flaherty and Man City’s Abbie McManus. Both have played their fair share of games against each other over the past three and a half years; Flaherty joining Chelsea from Arsenal just as McManus’ City was joining the FA WSL.
Both played their parts in the first big meeting between the two, Chelsea had the better of their first game in July and was looking to seal their first FA WSL title at the home of Cushing’s Manchester City.
But City had other ideas, with Cushing stating postmatch that “if anyone was going to lift a trophy at our stadium, we want it to be us,” and they played like they meant it. Goals from Jill Scott and Toni Duggan left Chelsea reeling before Flaherty headed home to give her side hope and McManus was promptly dismissed for an elbow on Yuki Ogimi.
“Whether it’s Man City, Reading, or whoever, it’s frustrating and defeats sit with you,” said 26-year-old Flaherty. “I’m terrible when we lose, I don’t want to talk to anyone after a game, it hits me hard. When we do lose, especially in bigger games, you’re gutted.
“The rivalry did stem from when we lost the league to them, it’s gradually built over time. They’ve become one of our biggest competitors, but you can’t look too much into it. It’s another game and we’ve prepared in exactly the same way; Manchester City is just a name.”
If any bitterness was still lingering come the season after, Chelsea channeled it in the best way possible when the two walked out at Wycombe’s Adams Park for an FA Cup semifinal and a chance to walk out for the first final to be held at Wembley.
Cushing’s City would get the better of the two league fixtures, one played the week after the semifinal, but a late winner from Ji So-yun ensured Chelsea got their revenge.
“It wasn’t nice that they got to the FA Cup final before us,” sais McManus. “We got there last year — you don’t forget those feelings — but at Man City we’re told not to show emotions in the game and I wouldn’t use that to play any better against Chelsea or any other team.”
If the late defeat in 2015 was painful, it wasn’t as bad as what was to come for McManus and her teammates. One year on, the pair met again at the same stage, once again fighting for the right to walk out at Wembley.
This time it was Fran Kirby with the last-gasp winner, later still given the match went all the way to the 120th minute, meaning Cushing’s side once again missed out on the final by the smallest of margins.
But City would strike later in the year, snatching away Chelsea’s league title in front of their very eyes with a 2-0 win at the City Football Academy, a match which saw the hosts clinch the title for the first time.
Another 1-0 win followed in the Spring Series, but it was Hayes and Chelsea who walked away with the trophy as City finally got their hands on the FA Cup. Now the pair are once again battling it out at the top, with the defending champions currently sitting two points clear of Sunday’s hosts.
“We’ve been really busy with Champions League games and Continental Cup games, so it hasn’t been a focus until the Tottenham game was done with on Wednesday,” said Flaherty.
“For a neutral, it will be a fixture they look out for. My family are excited for it, it will be a tough game and probably the game of the season so far for fans. It will be a good game, our games against City have always been exciting.”
Twenty-four-year-old McManus, the sole remaining member of Manchester City pre-relaunch, echoes Flaherty’s sentiments and says she and her teammates will also prepare for the encounter like they would any other.
“It’s another game for us, we want to win of course, but it’s not season defining. It’s us and Chelsea who will be fighting for the title, but we’re only halfway through the season and we’ve got to play them again here in Manchester.
“It’s not a title decider, it’s just another fixture. We won’t be nervous. Of course we’ll be up for the game, but we’ll be up for it like we’re up for any game.”
While season defining it is not on this occasion, it could provide a mental blow to whichever side ends up on the losing side, with the next league match for either not for another month due to the season splitting for a winter break after Sunday’s matchup.
A win for Man City would leave them five points clear of their rivals going into Christmas while defeat would at least ensure the very worst scenario would be a point deficit to Hayes’ side.
“Everyone wants to win,” said McManus. “We wouldn’t be in the game if we didn’t want to win, but it doesn’t mean we’ll prepare any other way. We want to play the best, we want to play the teams who are fighting for the same thing we’re fighting for. We won’t take our foot off the gas or change what we do.”
With both sides having progressed to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, Chelsea have had to dispatch two top European sides in the shape of Bayern Munich and FC Rosengård, a factor which Flaherty believes may be “helpful” in preparing for Sunday.
“You get excited for these games because you’ll be tested as a player and you have to be on top of your game,” said the center back.
“But we’ve played a couple of the best teams in Europe and that’s a help for us. It will be a good game, there’s a rivalry between both teams and it’s grown over the years. It never existed before, but the last few years it has been us battling for that top spot. We know what we need to do, we know we need to get the win going into the break.”
Flaherty also dismisses suggestions the title race is already over after Chelsea dropped two late points to Reading last month.
“I know a few people have talked about us dropping points there, people saying the league’s done, but it’s silly for anyone to say anything like that at this stage.”
One factor that could play a large part in deciding Sunday’s encounter is squad depth. Emma Hayes has recruited impressively and en masse since losing the league last year, adding the likes of Crystal Dunn, Ramona Bachmann, Maren Mjelde, Maria Thorisdóttir, Magdalena Eriksson, and Carly Telford to her armory.
Man City, on the other hand, have only been able to give Claire Emslie and Mel Lawley regular minutes out of the new additions the club has made in 2017. Fellow new signing Mie Jans has missed the majority of the campaign so far with an injury picked up at the European Championships and Pauline Bremer fractured her leg against Everton earlier this season.
With England left back Demi Stokes and key midfielder Keira Walsh also set to miss the game, Cushing is likely going to have start young defender Esme Morgan, as well as the possibility of using McManus in a midfield role due to the absence of Walsh.
But McManus insists the team is “not worried” about the prospect of lining up against Chelsea’s strong squad with a slightly depleted first eleven.
“We have got a few injuries, but we back our squad and we know we can mix and match players if we need to. We’re not worried about things like that, it doesn’t matter who’s injured, we’ll back anybody who starts and those are on the bench.”
The defender also doesn’t think the element of surprise will be a factor when it comes to each team guessing who the other will play, and where they’ll play, come Sunday.
“I wouldn’t like to guess what Emma’s thinking, but Nick will pick the team he thinks will do the job on the day. We’ll train like we play and try to earn a shirt, and if that means I get a shirt at right back, center back, left back, or center midfield, I’ll go out and do my job for the team.”
Flaherty, meanwhile, admits the extra strength in the squad has been a huge plus for her side this season and believes it stands them in good stead for the future.
“It’s been massive,” she said. “The size of the squad has previously let us down. We’d have the starting eleven, but we didn’t have a strong bench. When you’re tired and games open up late on, we didn’t have fresh legs. This season, the subs coming on have made a difference. It’s a good environment — you’re pushing yourself against the best and Emma knows whoever she plays, everyone’s ready and everyone’s tactically aware to play anywhere.”
After last season’s title defeat to Manchester City, Hayes spoke about a lack of physicality in her squad and admitted her side were “out fought” by their rivals in the 2-0 defeat at the CFA.
With the additions Hayes has now made, Flaherty says there’s a new mindset in the squad, which she accepts perhaps wasn’t there before.
“When we’d play at Man City, we’d have that mindset that we weren’t physical enough. Now we’ve got players who don’t care if it’s Man City or Yeovil Town. I love the physical side of it and I love the physical games you get in this league. But you need to play them and know the players are ready to fight, that those coming off the bench are up for it. We’re not a team who is going to get bullied anymore.”
Once the break starts after next week’s Continental Cup quarterfinals, Flaherty won’t be simply putting her foot up and resting ahead of the second half of the season. The defender will be going out and about in London to help the homeless as Christmas approaches.
“Every year for the past three or four years, I go out a few days before Christmas into London. I drive around dropping off clothes and food for the homeless. We’ve got an online fundraiser and we’ll donate that to local shelters near where I live.”