Every few weeks in the Women’s Super League, a game comes around that is labelled a title decider. In the case of Arsenal vs Chelsea this Sunday, it arrives after a month-long winter break.
Both teams last played a competitive match in the third week of December, when they both took part in the final round of Champions League group-stage matches. Since then, they’ve had a bit of holiday and then training camps; Chelsea jetted off to Spain while Arsenal stayed at Pennyhill, a luxury hotel complex in Surrey.
They come back after the break straight into one of the biggest matches of their respective seasons. In 2021-22, this match opened the WSL campaign with a blockbuster 3-2 win for Arsenal. There were two Beth Mead goals, albeit one of them offside, and just under 9,000 in the crowd that day.
The result kicked off the Jonas Eidevall era at Arsenal, and the Swede laid the foundations for his role as something of a nemesis for Emma Hayes, with his knee slide at full-time leading to a few light-hearted jibes between the two throughout the season.
The pair face off at the Emirates for the first time since that fiery match, but this time there will be around 40,000 in the crowd.
Over the past year, Arsenal have turned the Emirates into a fortress, pulling in big crowds for weekend WSL games and playing all their Champions League home matches there. They enjoy the space the Emirates brings and plans are afoot to one day make it the team’s permanent home.
But, as much as it has been great for attendance, the Emirates has brought mixed results for the team and since that win back in September 2021, Arsenal have only won four times in the other eight games in north London — against Tottenham twice, and against Zurich and Juventus in this season’s Champions League. As much as Arsenal enjoy the luxury of the Emirates’ pitch dimensions, their opposition gains that advantage too. Chelsea, boosted by the dynamic width provided by Guro Reiten and Lauren James, will be relishing the opportunity to spread the play.
Sam Kerr, despite not being at her best this season, loves a big game performance on a huge stage and will no doubt be relishing the occasion. Fran Kirby is fresh from a December WSL Player of the Month nomination and will be looking to continue her good form from the end of the year.
For Arsenal, this match seems like a make-or-break moment in their season. With all the injuries that bookended the first chunk of their campaign, and a potentially decisive defeat to Manchester United in the WSL, the Gunners find themselves in a possibly troubling patch of games.
The club has lost Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead to long-term anterior cruciate ligament injuries and are still waiting on an extended run of matches for Rafaelle Souza, Leah Williamson and Kim Little, who all came back from injury just before the break.
Arsenal need to get a result in this match to stay within touching distance of Chelsea. If Chelsea win, they would go six points clear – but Arsenal have a game in hand at Manchester City on February 11.
Hot on Arsenal’s heels are Manchester United, just two points behind. Defeat for Eidevall’s side and a victory for United at home to Liverpool on Sunday would see Arsenal end the weekend in third.
But Arsenal should not be fearful. It’s been a busy transfer window with the highly-rated midfielder Victoria Pelova joining from Ajax and exciting 19-year-old Katherine Kuhl arriving from Danish side Nordsjaelland. The return to full fitness of their starting centre-back partnership of Souza and Williamson couldn’t come at a more important time as the makeshift back line looked shaky in certain moments last year.
Goals and chances will be the issue in the next few weeks, not least on Sunday. No Miedema or Mead heaps pressure on Stina Blackstenius, Caitlin Foord and Frida Maanum. Although there is an expectation Arsenal will bring in attacking reinforcements at some point this window, it’ll be too soon for Sunday’s game.
There’s nothing like coming in from the cold into one of the biggest matches of your season, with only behind-closed-doors friendlies and internal games to prepare for it.
But both teams will be out of rhythm and practice. Perhaps this is the best time for Arsenal to play a Chelsea team that is yet to hit their absolute best this season.
One thing is for sure, there will be no end to the narratives and conclusions drawn from Sunday’s result. The WSL is all about these head-to-head matchups that ultimately define a team’s season.
Sunday’s result could mean everything and nothing, especially if it’s a draw. But one team seems more desperate than the other and sometimes desperation can be the downfall.
Arsenal are without a trophy since 2019 — unthinkable for a club with so much success — and are managing a difficult period of injuries. A big result on Sunday would be the best way of proving that this team has the resilience and grit to go all the way.
(Photos: Getty Images)
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