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  • Writer's pictureBethany Barker

Back in action: Record crowds, Debuts and Late dramas

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

Sunday saw the return of the WSL after an 18-week break which once again saw the women's game grow even more with increasing crowds in the World Cup.

Wednesday 4th October 2023


The Barclays Women's Super League (WSL) kicked off this weekend with all twelve teams back in action around the country; last season saw an increase of 182.95% attendance and 36.7 million streams- which is a record amount for the WSL- for WSL matches demonstrating the impact the 2022 Euros had on the women's game in England. The increased amount of fans saw Chelsea become Champions for a fourth time in a row, securing their spot in the Champions League alongside Manchester United and Arsenal (however, the latter are now out of this league due to a defeat to Paris FC on penalties). Bristol City was promoted from the Championship whilst Reading (who are now part-time) struggled in a relegation battle with Brighton and Leicester City, meaning they were relegated. This season more Women's teams will be playing at the bigger stadiums where they will be hoping to break some more attendance and viewership records, off the back of an amazing summer with the World Cup.

As the 2023/24 season kicks off here is a recap of the opening weekend:

Aston Villa vs Manchester United: 1-2

Despite backlash surrounding their 'wet' look shirts, Aston Villa started their WSL campaign in front of a strong home crowd of 12,533 at Villa Park- which is a new club record. Villa were brought down to ten players at 74 minutes after Kirsty Hanson (forward) was shown the red card due to her contact with Hayley Ladd where her foot was deemed as too high when her studs made contact with Ladd. Hanson has received a three-match ban meaning she will miss Villa's games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham after the request to reduce the ban was denied.

However, last season's Golden Boot winner- Rachel Daly who scored 22 goals in her return to the WSL- was not going to let the disadvantage of ten players stop her from starting her campaign for another as at 76 minutes the forward converted an assist from Adriana Leon (Canadian forward) to give the home side the advantage.

Speaking after the game Carla Ward- Villa manager- stated “The big calls went against us. It is what it is, I’m unbelievably proud of my players. We showed heart and that’s what we’re about.” but she also highlighted how the 'controversial' red brings about the question of referring standards in the league, “I will never blame the officials because I do believe the powers that be need to help them. The powers that be need to make our officials in this league full-time, so it’s not on them.”

Manchester United's WSL campaign was left with questions surrounding who would be their main goalscorers after losing big names, Alessia Russo (Arsenal) and Ona Batlle (Barcelona) however, the first game showed that even with late winners they still held their attacking quality. The visitors' first goal came from a six-yard strike at 79 minutes by Lucía García (who was also named player of the match) with an assist from Millie Turner; García praised her team saying, “It was a top match, we fought to the very end. We are very happy to score the two goals and come back from behind. It was hard work but we just kept going” showing the determination the 2022/23 runners up have. Keeping their 57% possession rate the visitors claimed a late winner at 90+2 minutes when Rachel Williams (who is playing in her thirteenth WSL season) converted a header to put past the Villa debutant Daphne van Domselaar to claim the three points.

Everton vs Brighton: 1-2

Brighton started this season off with a win against Everton at Walton Hall Park where they held a 48% possession rate after an impressive first quarter which saw Elisabeth Terland (Norwegian forward) convert a deflected 'rocket' shot- which came off the bar- from Katie Robinson (English midfielder) for a 3-minute goal. Again at 14 minutes, Terland denied Emily Ramsey (Everton goalkeeper) the block as the Seagulls gained the lead.

Throughout the second half, the Seagulls' defence worked to retain the lead but at 65 minutes the opposition's captain, Megan Finnigan (English defender) was able to produce a right-footed shot from the centre of the box coming from Hanna Bennison's (Swedish midfielder) cross from a set-piece corner. Despite Finnigan bringing Everton back into the game the Seagulls were the team to walk away with three points after a strong start.

Bristol City vs Leicester City: 2-4

This weekend also saw the first meeting for the newly promoted, Bristol City, and Leicester City which saw the Foxes take their first win earlier than last season (which was after ten games). Carrie Jones (Wales and Bristol midfielder) opened the scoring up at 33 minutes after a deflected shot to give Bristol their first WSL goal since 2021, however the home side's lead didn't last long as Aimee Palmer (Leicester midfielder and debutant) equalised from 20 yards at 47 minutes which sparked the Foxes'comeback. The next goal came from Shannon O'Brien just after the break after she was given room to run by the Bristol City defence who allowed O'Brien to fire the ball low and hard into the bottom left-hand corner. The third goal came from Lena Petermann's (German forward) header at 52 minutes to get, her debut goal for the Foxes. Jutta Rantala (Finish midfielder) was the last debutant to score as she swept in a fourth at 83 minutes after the substitute managed to pick out the far corner.

Bristol City were given a penalty after Mari Ward was taken down by CJ Bott, this allowed Amalie Thestrup to tuck the ball into the bottom corner from the spot but the home team were unable to catch the Foxes' impressive lead. After a 65% possession rate and 8/18 shots being on target, the Foxes claimed the top of the table for week one; Petermann stated “I don’t think the afternoon could’ve been better. It’s so important to start with a win and I’m very happy to get my first goal in this league so it’s a perfect day. We fought back really well, the equaliser was so important just before half-time." The Foxes will face Everton at home next (8th October) where they will be aiming to keep their winning ways.

Arsenal vs Liverpool: 0-1

A WSL attendance record was set at the Emmirets as 54,115 supporters showed up to support Arsenal and Liverpool, compared to the 2,017 fans recorded at the stadium in 2013 which once again demonstrates the growth of the game, by third-place finishers (2022/23).

After a quiet first half from both teams, it was early in the second half that Liverpool midfielder, Miri Taylor (returning from an NWSL season at Angel City) claimed her first goal for the club. The midfielder collected Missy Bo Kearns’ assist within the penalty box in order to guide a low finish into the opponents' goal, speaking after the game Taylor described her decisive goal as "the stuff you dream of every day as a little kid." On the team's performance, she positively stated "We worked really hard and were very disciplined."

Regardless of the positive attendance, the home side was unfortunate with their play with only three out of nine shots being on target, Jonas Eidevall- manager- stated, “Are we performing at the level we want right now? No, we’re not, there’s no hiding from that. We need to be better and develop and we don’t have a lot of time to do that.” which adds to the teams' disappointment after being knocked out of the Champions League early September (after a 2-4 defeat on penalties against Paris FC). The Gunners will face Manchester United away next where they will be looking at improving their performance and move up from 10th place on the table. Despite Liverpool only holding 40% possession they were able to cause upset on the opening day for the second season in a row (after last season's win against Chelsea) by winning against a top-four side, claiming their first three points of the season.

West Ham vs Manchester City: 0-2

Fourth-place finishers, Manchester Cty, travelled to the Chigwell Construction Stadium to face West Ham where there was a quiet first half with the Irons defence valiantly preventing City's attackers.

City was the first team out of the blocks with a fast curling left-footed strike by Lauren Hemp in the 48th minute led to the first goal; despite success at international level, Chloe Kelly was unable to convert her penalty (after a handball call) as her stuttered run-up was unable to trick Mackenzie Arnold (Australian keeper and West Ham captain) who was able to palm the strike out for a corner. Gareth Taylor's side doubled their lead as the club's record-signing, Jill Rood- who is returning to the WSL from Wolfsburg for a fee in excess of £300,000, ended the visitors' short-lived disappointment by calmly striking the ball over Arnold after the defence lifted on her run in the 55th minute.

In the 71st minute, Manchester City's defender, Leila Ouahabi was shown a red card for a bad foul and violent conduct on Emma Harries and City was reduced to 10 players with 20 minutes to go. However, West Ham couldn't make the most of their extra player in the final 20 minutes as the visitors claimed the three points after a possessive game (69%).

Chelsea vs Tottenham Hotspur: 2-1

The first weekend saw a London derby played in front of 14,776 fans at Stamford Bridge where reigning title holders, Chelsea, started their title defence. The home side spent 94 days at the top of the WSL table last season before securing their fourth consecutive title. The Blues' season goal tally was started at 28 minutes, by debutant Mia Fishel (US forward) who capitalised on Niamh Charles' cross from the byline to create a header to the bottom of the goal, ultimately out of the reach of Spencer. After a strong first half with multiple chances- three coming from Chelsea and England forward Lauren James- the home side looked to create powerful attacking pressure. After a potentially controversial no-goal call on Guro Reiten's shot- which had Ashleigh Neville desperately attempt to clear the ball off the line- James reacted quickly to a cross from Charles to double their lead with a close-range shot, at 51 minutes.

With no VAR technology the goal from Reiten was disallowed however, Chelsea head coach, Emma Hayes, stated “I don’t understand why we don’t have VAR-lite across the league. We implemented it at Kingsmeadow during pre-season. I don’t think there should be any excuses; we’ve got the technology.” which may bring about the question of the need for VAR just like the men's side. Another positive for the Blues was that Fran Kirby (forward) returned to the WSL after her knee injury in May, which was met with cheers and applause from the fans.

The visitors' debutant Martha Thomas, was able to capitalise on Zećira Mušović's (Swedish goalkeeper) error- a split catch- with a quick slot into the lower right corner at 76 minutes, giving her team a burst of attacking energy. However, they were unable to convert any shots after the 76th minute past the Chelsea defence which meant that the home side was able to hold 56% possession and create twelve shots on target throughout the game to gain their first win on the opening weekend since the 2019/20 season, which was also against Tottenham at the Bridge. This win was also Chelsea's thirteenth consecutive win against Tottenham.


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