Emma Hayes is not averse to expressing her opinion. So it was interesting on Monday when the Chelsea manager carefully skirted the issue of the European Super League or a women’s version of the breakaway competition. “I don’t know anything about it,” she said.
With words eerily similar to those of the Chelsea men’s manager, Thomas Tuchel, earlier that day, Hayes said: “I’ve been on the training pitch mostly. I don’t know about any conversations around those things. I leave those matters to people at the top end of the football and I’m paid to win football matches.”
Hayes does have two big matches to win this week – the first a likely title decider against Manchester City on Wednesday at the Academy Stadium, and then the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich on Sunday – but both games are now shrouded in the fog of the ESL and its token commitment to a women’s edition.
Her opposite number for the game on Wednesday, Gareth Taylor, said on Tuesday: “There’s been a lot of reaction to it and not all of it necessarily good. Nobody really knows at the moment what that looks like, particularly for the women’s game.
“My take was that it was more solely focused on the men’s game and the part around it potentially happening in the women’s game as well was kind of thrown in late and almost at the bottom of many other bullet points.”
Asked if the possibility of the seven-times European champions Lyon and twice-winners Wolfsburg not being included was disappointing, he said: “You want to play against the best teams and [Lyon and Wolfsburg] have been right up there with the best teams over a number of years so obviously to take that away wouldn’t be ideal. Information is in its infancy so it’s really hard for us to give a valued view on what it looks like.”
Chelsea are two points clear of City with three games to play. The west London side, having lifted the Continental League Cup last month, stand around a month away from a potential quadruple. But Chelsea have never beaten City away in the WSL, having endured three defeats and four draws. City are in form and on a record-breaking run of 12 successive WSL victories and have earned clean sheets in each of their past six games.
“It’s fair to say it’s a big game,” said Hayes, who has a full squad bar the long-term absentee Maren Mjelde. “But it’s no different to different tests you have all year. We always knew we had to go up there and get a result so we’re prepared.”
Chelsea have edged matters between the two teams this season, first winning the Community Shield at Wembley, then beating City in the league and picking up the Continental Cup. “But this is a completely different situation,” said Hayes. “Everybody knows Man City and Chelsea is always a fiercely competitive game. There’s not a lot in it, it can go either way.”
Taylor said: “When you look back at pre-season, and to the Community Shield against Chelsea, I think they were potentially a couple of transfer windows ahead of us. We were very small in the squad, we were waiting on players and then obviously, when those players came in late, we had to then get them acclimatised and that takes time. Now we’re a different team, we’ve got more experience, we’ve had more opportunities to work with each other.”
The dynamic partnership of England’s Fran Kirby and the Australia forward Sam Kerr will be critical to Chelsea’s chances of earning a first WSL win in Manchester. The pair have 31 goals and 15 assists between them in the league and, with Taylor’s team struggling to get defenders back from injury (the captain, Steph Houghton, is still absent), there is a real opportunity for Chelsea to exploit a backline less used to playing together.
For Taylor a win puts a possible double on the cards, with the team still in the FA Cup. For Hayes “winning always breeds confidence” and, with Bayern coming up, beating City would give her team a lot of momentum heading into the European tie.
“But they are two different competitions and you do perform differently in the league over the Champions League as it’s a different style of opponent,” she said. “For the neutral and everybody at home it’s going to be a great game to watch because the outcome will play a massive factor in where the league title is going to end.”
A positive for both managers is the announcement that WSL and Championship referees will now come under the wing of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, which presides over referees in the top four men’s divisions. Taylor said it was “brilliant news”, adding: “To come under one governing body is going to help everyone. It improves the infrastructure. We’re always wanting to look at ways that we can revolutionise and improve the game and add quality and this is a really positive step forward.”