The Women’s Super League made an electric comeback this weekend with shock results, record crowds and impressive first goals.
Clubs looking to capitalize on the buzz created by England’s success at Euro 2022 had to wait another week – after the first round of fixtures were postponed following the death of Queen Elizabeth II – but that in was definitely worth it.
Questions have been put to Manchester City after their long list of departures, including midfielder Keira Walsh’s world-record transfer to Barcelona, and if anyone could knock champions Chelsea off their perch.
But few would have seen these two clubs lose the opening weekend when City were beaten 4-3 in a dramatic and frenetic encounter at Villa Park, before Chelsea suffered a shock defeat at newly promoted Liverpool.
It was a reminder of the competition facing top clubs this season as City looked set for an uphill battle to secure Champions League qualification.
Manager Gareth Taylor was under pressure last season after a poor start in an injury crisis, but City picked him up to finish third, only to lose in the Champions League qualifying rounds last month.
That loss to Real Madrid, compounded by Walsh’s late departure a day before the transfer deadline and now that first loss to Villa, has darkened the clouds hanging over the club.
Their defeat was made worse by the fact that rivals Manchester United – who many predict will be City’s closest opponents for third place – comfortably beat Reading 4-0 with a fine performance on Saturday.
The pressure on City – and Taylor – to deliver is growing as scrutiny of the decision to allow several top players to leave in the transfer window increases.
“The spine in the Aston Villa team has collided with a broken spine in the Manchester City team,” former England goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis told BBC Two. “A spine that’s been taken apart with players starting left, right and centre.”
The dramatic scenes continued at Prenton Park as Liverpool, in front of a record crowd of 3,006, scored two second-half penalties to win 2-1 and spoil the start of Chelsea’s title defence.
Chelsea also lost to Arsenal on Matchday 1 of last season but looked surprisingly short of creativity and quality in the final third against Liverpool on Sunday.
Emma Hayes was clearly frustrated and said her side ‘couldn’t knock on a barn door’ on a weekend when rivals Arsenal won comfortably 4-0 at home to Brighton.
The Blues have lost just twice in the league in 2021-22, but with just one point separating them from Arsenal last season, they can’t afford to drop any extra points against teams they should beat.
Villa score again as Liverpool show their credentials
Villa have shown ambition in the transfer window by signing England international Rachel Daly, France midfielder Kenza Dali and loaning Scotland winger Kirsty Hanson.
They scored just 13 goals in total last season but any concerns over their ability to do so this year were quickly dismissed against City.
They were forward-thinking, aggressive and clinical in front of 6,785 supporters – another record – at Villa Park.
“We wanted to be brave, take risks, create chances and make it a horrible place to play and I think we did that,” Daly said.
It was a display of Villa’s intention to ruffle the feathers of those teams at the top of the table in a bid to improve on their ninth-place finish last season.
And if anyone wondered if Liverpool were equipped to compete with the WSL’s top sides when they returned, they were given a clear indication of the Merseyside club’s pedigree.
Victory over Chelsea marked the hosts’ return to the top flight after a two-year absence, but they played with the same conviction and confidence that they have so consistently shown in the Championship.
Under Matt Beard, who guided them to back-to-back WSL titles in his first stint in charge, Liverpool looked robust and clinical – and they needed it on Sunday.
Chelsea caused them problems and dominated possession, but Liverpool grew in the game and took a chance on his arrival.
As Beard said afterwards – “there should be no more hesitation” for Liverpool, who have shown their credentials as a WSL-owned side.
British stars in the spotlight
Across the country, fans lined up outside stadiums and clubs welcomed record crowds as many hoped to see the Euro winners return to England.
Golden Boot winner Beth Mead needed no time to settle back into club football as she scored twice and set up Sweden striker Stina Blackstenius in Arsenal’s win over Brighton Friday.
Manchester United fans shouted Ella Toone’s name as she entered Leigh Sports Village on Saturday and she was full of sparks in their victory over Reading, while England team-mate Alessia Russo scored with a header before halftime.
Nikita Parris also looked brilliant in his first bench cameo for United.
But it was Aston Villa’s new signing Daly who stole the show with two superb goals on his debut in the win over City, while Euro 2022 final scorer Chloe Kelly got an assist from the losing side.
“[Daly’s] a winner, she sets standards, she picks on people but she can play for sure,” Villa boss Ward said.