English women’s football underwent a growth spurt in 2022 – but after pre-match scenes at Emirates Stadium demonstrated some of its growing pains, Arsenal and Chelsea also showed why the Women’s Super League remains so competitive.
A total of 46,811 tickets were sold, with worrying views of tightly-packed crowds outside the stadium at kick-off as fans struggled to get into the ground.
Both Holloway Road and Arsenal tube stations were closed due to overcrowding, meaning many fans had to walk further from Finsbury Park, which left many struggling to make the noon start.
An Arsenal statement said the matchday operation was the same as for other fixtures but an early kick-off, and fans arriving late, led to busy turnstiles.
Once the supporters were in the ground, they witnessed a tight and tense game which looked set to be decided by a penalty – before a late moment of combined magic from Jelena Cankovic and Sam Kerr.
Introduced from the bench 10 minutes earlier, Cankovic curled a perfect cross to the edge of the six-yard area, which the Australian headed home for her sixth WSL goal of the season – and Chelsea’s 32nd league strike in 11 matches.
In the 88th minute, Arsenal had taken control of the WSL title race thanks to Kim Little’s earlier spot-kick.
But just a minute later, and by the end of Sunday’s games, they had been left in third place after being overtaken by Manchester United who thrashed Liverpool 6-0 at Leigh Sports Village.
Arsenal, Chelsea and United have lost only one game this season – Chelsea’s came on the opening day at Liverpool in September.
The title race is now more open than ever, with the Blues leading by three points, but both United and Arsenal have a game in hand.
“The good news is you can sell more papers – and the title will go to last day as it always does,” said Chelsea manager Emma Hayes after the draw at Arsenal.
“Coming today, I knew Arsenal would have their strongest team, this was their best opportunity, and, as such, this was a great point for us.”
It has been impossible to separate Arsenal and Chelsea in the WSL era. In 23 meetings, both have won nine each and there have now been five draws.
Arsenal and Chelsea have won all of the past six WSL titles between them, with Hayes’ side claiming five, including the previous three.
Only a point separated them in the final standings last season. It looks likely the margin will be just as close this time – making both the decision to award the penalty, and Kerr’s last-gasp intervention, even more significant.
Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall was still in bullish mood afterwards, playing up his personal record against Chelsea and the relative strength of both teams.
He said: “You have two teams who won their groups in the Champions League. Both teams can reach semis, so they’re in the top four teams in European football.
“European football is the best, so it is two of the best teams in the world. That is what you see today and we had a strong performance.
“We’ve played them three times in WSL under me and we are undefeated – and in each game we could have won. Those performances give me hope and belief for the future.”
The importance of the point to Chelsea was clear in Hayes’ celebrations when Kerr’s header hit the back of the net, leaping from her seat and punching the air with both fists.
“I swore three times, and my son is going to watch that back and see momma swearing,” she said.
“For us to come here and not be at our best, it’s an amazing point.”
This was the third WSL game Arsenal have played at 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 defeat to United in November.
This outcome meant the Gunners have now picked up only four points from nine in front of these bumper Emirates crowds, including throwing away winning positions against both title rivals, having also led 2-1 against United before a stunning turnaround.
“It’s impressive that it’s our third WSL game with a big attendance – my hope going into games is that we can play better with the crowd,” added Eidevall.
“The more we do this, the more we can create a fortress. You can also see players getting more comfortable in engagement with the crowd. We have 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 at Emirates Stadium to come. But they must now start getting the results to match the occasions.