There was one major bone of contention in the Women’s Super League (WSL) this weekend as those new refereeing standards caused issues again. These are the key talking points from the WSL, along with some highlights from European action.
Referee takes centre stage in Manchester
Yeah, we really have to start with this one, don’t we? As highlighted last week, there has been a concerted clampdown on fouls, perceived timewasting and dissent in the WSL, but those new rules were pushed to the limit on Sunday afternoon as Manchester City had two players sent off in their 1-1 draw with Chelsea. Chelsea’s Guro Reiten scrambled a 96th-minute equaliser to cancel out Chloe Kelly‘s seventh-minute opener.
But it was a match that, ultimately, had very little football in it after the 37th-minute sending off of City captain Alex Greenwood for a second yellow card as she apparently took too long (a whole 26 seconds) over a free kick. In total, referee Emily Heaslip brandished 11 cautions — three for City’s Kelly, Laia Aleixandri and Jill Roord in protest at the decision — including second yellows for Greenwood and then Lauren Hemp in the 81st minute, as most fouls or dissent seemed to carry an automatic booking.
Rather than adding a layer of protection for the players, or building trust and respect between herself and those on the pitch, Heaslip’s interventions left no room for common sense as she followed the letter of the law to the extreme. An engrossing game quickly descended into chaos as the referee took centre stage and ended up on the end of constant booing and chants of “cheat” from the home crowd.
Anyone who regularly watches women’s football knows that far too many fouls are let go and players have been put in danger for years by lax officiating. But what we saw in Manchester was a rapid overcorrection that doesn’t benefit anyone.
Heaslip generally sets a high standard for officiating in WSL, allowing games to flow, using her time as a player to read the game and consider the nuances and intent. Yet none of that pedigree was on show at the Joie Stadium as she tried to follow the WSL’s new guidance.
Champions Chelsea continue to grind
After sealing a double of WSL and FA Cup for Chelsea in 2022-23, manager Emma Hayes called their season “a grind.” The football had been far from vintage for sizable chunks, but her side were still able to pick up more silverware come the end of the season.
Two games into this campaign and there is still the same ragged look to the champions. In the first 37 minutes against City, when it was 11 vs. 11, they were entirely overrun. Even against 10 players after the sending off of Greenwood, the Blues continued to struggle. Fresh legs off the bench helped the visitors settle eventually, as they hit the woodwork three times, but there was an impotence to the team hotly tipped to lift a fifth consecutive WSL crown.
Away days in Manchester are historically the hardest for the Blues, but their midfield was too easily bypassed, and their attack had no fluency and balance. A lack of fitness to key players — with Australia star Sam Kerr only coming off the bench at half-time and Erin Cuthbert making her first competitive start since July — didn’t help the ring-rust, but they did enough to claim a draw as Reiten’s scrappy equaliser in the 96th-minute took advantage of City being down to eight players, with defender Alanna Kennedy off the pitch receiving treatment. They will have to be better than this, though.
There are three coaches who have more than one WSL title: Chelsea’s Emma Hayes (six), former Arsenal boss Laura Harvey (two) and Liverpool’s Matt Beard (also two). Although Beard’s triumphs came in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he helped set a blueprint in the burgeoning league. Now in his second stint back at Liverpool, Beard’s side are going from strength to strength.
After leading the team back to the WSL in 2022-23, following their relegation, the 45-year-old lifted the level of his squad to make them a competitive force again, all the while negating the usual issues that come with the jump back up. Their first season back was dotted with gutsy performances and memorable results as they finished a respectable seventh and, two games into this season, Beard looks to have once again raised the bar.
After a 1-0 opening-day win against Arsenal at the Emirates, where Liverpool nullified their opponents’ strengths, the Reds again put in a smart performance in a 2-0 win against Aston Villa with goals from Marie Hobinger and Natasha Flint. It’s a long season that will be full of twists and turns. But, after two games, there are signs that the Reds are flourishing; the players are all on the same page, enjoying their football, and their manager is clearly able to get the best out of them.
Irons forge a new path
After an opening-day loss to Manchester City when they struggled to get a foot on the ball, there may have been alarm bells going off for West Ham. But under new coach Rehanne Skinner the Irons played some of their best football in recent memory for a 2-0 win over Brighton.
Having gone through a number of different coaches and styles over their five-year stint in the WSL, it has been hard for the club to find an identity. But this win was punctuated with the attacking style that Skinner alluded to before the start of the season, with her frontline putting on a show.
Summer signing Riko Ueki impressed, having a hand in both goals and spending her 78 minutes on the pitch putting the Brighton defence under constant pressure. And, whether on the front foot or weathering a storm defensively late in the first half, the Hammers remained composed throughout and held out as goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold kept her first clean sheet of the season.
Late goals a theme in Europe?
From Arsenal and Chelsea, to Juventus and Real Madrid, game-changing late goals are fast becoming a theme around Europe this season. Cloe Lacasse saved the Gunners in a 2-2 draw against Manchester United on Friday night, while we have covered Reiten’s equaliser for Chelsea above.
But both Spanish and Italian runners up from last season also left it late against their respective opposition on Saturday. Arianna Caruso‘s match-winner for Juve against AC Milan came in the 87th minute, while Signe Bruun connected with Olga Carmona‘s low cross in 90th-minute for Real Madrid to seal a 1-0 win over Villarreal.
Having invested heavily over the summer to add more depth and quality to the team, losing key player Caroline Weir to an ACL injury last month has seen the rest of the team required to pick up the slack. Even still, Las Blancas laboured against a Villarreal side who are without a win in Liga F so far this season, before snatching all three points.
Goalkeeping heroics in Sweden
Drifting towards their first loss in five games, Swedish Damallsvenskan side Vittsjö grabbed a last-gasp equaliser in a 1-1 draw against league leaders Häcken as goalkeeper Lainey Burdett struck from a stoppage-time corner.
Trailing to Rosa Kafaj’s ninth-minute effort, the Las Vegan-born shot stopper’s gamble paid dividends for Vittsjö as she rose to meet Sarah Stratigakis‘ floated delivery with the side of her head to salvage a point. It was a goal that kept her team’s hopes of finishing in a European berth alive as the fourth-placed side sit five points adrift of a qualification spot with four games left to play.