English women’s football has seen growth in leaps and bounds in 2022 – but after pre-match scenes at the Emirates Stadium showed some of its growing problems, Arsenal and Chelsea also showed why the Women’s Super League remains so competitive.
A total of 46,811 tickets were sold, with a worrying sight of 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, leaving many struggling to make the midday kick-off.
In a statement from Arsenal, it is stated that the work on the day of the match was the same as for the other games, but the early start and the late arrival of the fans led to the busyness of the halls.
Once the fans were on the pitch, they witnessed a tight and tense game that looked set to be decided by a penalty – before a late moment of combined magic by Jelena Čanković and Sam Kerr.
Brought on from the bench 10 minutes earlier, Cankovic curled in a perfect cross from the edge of the six-yard box, which the Australian headed home for her sixth WSL goal of the season – and Chelsea’s 32nd league goal in 11 matches.
In the 88th minute, Arsenal took control of the WSL title race thanks to Kim Little’s early spot-kick.
But just a minute later, and until the end of Sunday’s games, they remained in third place after being overtaken Manchester United thrashed Liverpool 6-0 at Leigh Sports Village.
Arsenal, Chelsea and United have lost just one game this season – Chelsea coming on Liverpool’s opening day in September.
The title race is now more open than ever, with the Blues leading by three points but both United and Arsenal having a game in hand.
“The good news is you can sell more paper – and the title will go to the last day as always,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said after the draw at Arsenal.
“Coming into today, I knew Arsenal would have their strongest team, this was their best chance, and as such, this was a great point for us.”
It was impossible to separate Arsenal and Chelsea in the WSL era. In 23 meetings, both have won nine and there have now been five draws.
Arsenal and Chelsea have won all of the past six WSL titles between them, with Hayes’ side winning five, including the previous three.
Only one point separated them in the final standings last season. The margin looks set to be just as close this time around – making the penalty decision and Kerr’s last-gasp intervention all the more significant.
Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall was still upbeat afterwards, adding to his personal record against Chelsea and the relative strength of both teams.
He said: “You have two teams that have won their groups 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 these are the two best teams in the world. That’s what you see today and we had a strong performance.
“We’ve played them three times in the WSL under my leadership and we’re undefeated – and we could have won every game. Those performances give me hope and faith in the future.”
The importance of the point for Chelsea was clear in Hayes’ celebration as Kerr headed into the net, jumped from her seat and punched the air with both fists.
“I cursed three times, and my son is going to watch it and see his mom cursing,” she said.
“For us to come here and not be at our best, it’s an unbelievable point.”
This was the third WSL match Arsenal played 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 defeat to United in November.
The outcome meant the Gunners have now picked up just four points from nine in front of this big Emirates crowd, including blowing away winning positions against both title rivals, having also led 2-1 against United before the stunning turnaround.
“It’s impressive that this is our third WSL game with a big attendance – I hope we can play better with the crowd when I go into games,” Eidevall added.
“The more we do this, the more we can create a fortress. You can also see the players become more comfortable interacting with the audience. We have to create that connection together.”
With Arsenal looking ahead to big European nights and another title race in 2023, there will be many more big games at the Emirates Stadium. But now they need to start getting results to match the occasion.