Another goal and an assist ensured Fran Kirby’s renaissance continued as Chelsea maintained their two point lead at the top of the Women’s Super League with a 3-0 defeat of Everton.
Emma Hayes, the Chelsea manager, had said prophetically earlier in the season that Kirby was not just back, following her devastating battle with pericarditis, but was “at another level already.” At Walton Hall Park Hayes said she had “run out of words” to describe the influence and brilliance of her diminutive striker after weeks and weeks of effusive praise.
Against Everton the 2018 Professional Footballers’ Association player of the year took her tally to 18 goals and 13 assists in all competitions and is on her way to ensuring that her name is carved on to a number of awards at the season’s close in May.
It was painfully ironic that Chelsea earned a spot kick in the first minute, three days after their first choice penalty taker, the right-back Maren Mjelde, lay screaming in agony on the pitch during the Continental Cup final, marring a comprehensive defeat of Bristol City. It has since been confirmed that Mjelde will be out for the rest of the season and Hayes said that they are all both “relieved and gutted”.
“I was distraught, this is a special person to the team and you saw how it affected us, we feared the worst. She had the surgery today so she’s doing well and she’ll be back for pre-season.”
The Norway captain had scored coolly from the spot in both legs of Chelsea’s Champions League last-16 match up with Atlético Madrid in the last two weeks. In the north-west it would be the German midfielder Melanie Leupolz that would step up in her place but Tinja-Riikka Korpela dived low to her right to push the attempt away.
With Hayes missing her “ice cold” spot-kick specialist it was down to a more familiar face to give Chelsea, the WSL leaders, the edge. Having scored twice and provided four assists on Sunday, Kirby would again combine with Sam Kerr in deadly fashion. A one-touch flick on from Kerr released the England forward through the middle and she lured Korpela off her line before slotting coolly into the empty net.
After a run of four wins at the start of the season Everton’s top-four challenge unravelled and they have struggled for consistency. Despite the scoreline, at times the home team put Chelsea under pressure. Willie Kirk, the Everton manager said the “entertaining” game had “partially given us confidence and partially given us a reality check”. He added: “If we’re serious about closing the gap we need to make sure we’re the best of the rest. We know how big the gap is and we think we know how to close it. But knowing how to close it and closing it are completely different things.”
The Danish European player of the year, Pernille Harder, would add a second after the break and the providers were predictable. Kerr played a crisp pass from the right of the box to Kirby on the left and the striker laid off to Harder to tap in.
Harder would loop the ball goalwards late on but Korpela somehow clawed it from behind her, only as far as Leupolz, though, who flicked in to atone for her earlier miss.
Kirk described the goals as “preventable” and said that the inconsistency his team have shown in recent months is partly down to a shift in emphasis.
“We had to slightly adapt our game,” he said. “We were great to watch, we were transitional, games were end to end, we were scoring goals and winning games, but we understood that that wouldn’t necessarily get us long-term success because we weren’t controlling games at any point.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to improve our ball retention. We’re going through an evolution in our style of play. We’re still on a journey.”