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Women’s Super League: Five talking points as title race and relegation battle intensifies

Liverpool v Chelsea
Liverpool inflicted Chelsea’s only defeat of the season in their opening match, beating them 2-1 in September
Venue: Kingsmeadow, London Date: Sunday, 22 January, 12:30 GMT
Coverage: Live coverage from 12:15 GMT on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport website & app

Things are getting tight at the top and bottom of the Women’s Super League with games coming thick and fast.

Can one of the bottom sides put a spanner in the works for a title contender? What is happening in the transfer market? And who will come out on top in the battle of the strikers?

Here are five things to look out for.

London derby blows title race wide open

Sam Kerr’s 89th-minute equaliser in last week’s London derby gave Chelsea and Arsenal a point apiece and leaves the Blues at the top of the table with Jonas Eidevall’s side trailing by three points.

Meanwhile, Manchester United thrashed Liverpool 6-0 to keep the pressure firmly on the London clubs, moving up to second, level on points with Arsenal but ahead on goal difference.

Arsenal, Chelsea and United have lost one game each this season – the title race is now more open than ever – but both United and Arsenal have a game in hand.

Plus, with Manchester City now unbeaten in their last eight WSL games, Gareth Taylor’s side should not be ruled out of contention.

Chelsea boss Emma Hayes said she needs to see more from her side if they are going to retain the title, their fourth in a row.

“I will demand the most from my team and the fans. I want the fans to demand the most from the team in a time where everything is tight and as a club we have to keep pushing on all fronts if we’re going to end up where we want to,” she said.

This weekend the three top sides face bottom-half opposition as Arsenal take on Brighton, United face Reading and Chelsea face Liverpool, the only side to beat them so far this season, which will be shown live on Sunday on the BBC.

WSL comings and goings

It’s been another busy week of signings, rumours and managers biting their tongue on incomings and outgoings.

Japan midfielder Mana Iwabuchi signed for Tottenham on loan from rivals Arsenal while Liverpool brought in midfielder Miri Taylor and Brighton signed experienced goalkeeper Lydia Williams.

Arsenal boss Eidevall said he wants to sign a “prolific” striker in the absence of usual goalscorers Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead, while at the other end of the table Reading boss Kelly Chambers hopes she can bring in “one, hopefully two” before the window shuts to give her side “a bit more depth and strength”.

With England internationals Beth England and Jordan Nobbs already making big moves this window – to Tottenham and Aston Villa, respectively – will we see any other big names on the move?

Relegation threat already looms

We may only just be at the halfway point of the season but already managers are bandying around the ‘R’ word – relegation.

With bottom side Leicester getting their first points on the board last weekend under new manager Willie Kirk, things between the bottom teams are tighter than ever.

“It would make a few other teams really uncomfortable if we were to pick up back-to-back wins,” said Kirk.

“As much as our focus is on us, the reality is we want as many people dragged into the [relegation scrap] as possible. If we can win on Sunday then it would drag another team into that battle.”

Reading and Brighton sit just above the drop with seven points with Liverpool just one point ahead of them and Tottenham also at risk of being dragged into the conversation, one point further ahead.

Spurs have suffered five consecutive defeats and Rehanne Skinner’s side will face a difficult challenge on Sunday when they take on a confident Leicester side, buoyant from their victory over Brighton.

“If there’s such a thing as a good time to play a team it’s probably following five defeats and knowing they have a few tough games afterwards,” said Kirk.

“They will want to pick up points sooner rather than later after going through this run of form.”

Reading boss Chambers also had relegation on her mind this week, echoing that several teams are currently in the frame.

“There’s a lot of teams that have been brought into the battle,” she said. “It makes the pressure harder. For the neutral it probably makes it a bit more exciting but that’s what football is about.

“We just need to keep focusing on ourselves and making sure in every game we go into to know what’s at stake. Our goal is to stay in this league.”

Battle of the strikers

This weekend sees the two best strikers in the league pitted against each other in Saturday’s early kick-off as Manchester City host Aston Villa.

City’s Khadija Shaw and Villa’s Rachel Daly have both scored nine goals in 10 games this season, the joint-highest in the WSL.

While it is still early for Golden Boot talk, the pair each have three goals more than Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby and Katie Stengel.

Khadija Shaw v Rachel Daly stats

Shaw has also recorded two assists to Daly’s one but the Jamaican’s overall shot accuracy sits at 44% while the England international boasts a more potent 53%.

The last time the two sides met fans were treated to a seven-goal thriller where Daly bagged two and Shaw netted one as Villa ran out 4-3 winners, so who will make the difference for their side this time?

Skinner’s solid United defence

Manchester United boast one of the best defensive records in the WSL and the fourth best in Europe, having shipped just six goals and scored 30.

They have kept seven clean sheets this season, more than any other side in the league, and should Mary Earps not concede against Reading this weekend she will become the first ever WSL goalkeeper to reach a landmark 50 clean sheets in the league.

What does Skinner put that down to?

“In all honesty, teamwork,” he said. “My teams will always defend as a group. That starts from Alessia [Russo] all the way back, the way we structure ourselves, I believe that as a team you function better.”

With the margins so tight at the top of the table, a superior goal difference could prove pivotal to his side securing their first ever WSL title.

“Our teams will never be about one star player, it will be about the collective and we work hard at that, we work hard at pressing, we want to gain the ball so we can play with the ball. When you keep the ball like we do it’s always difficult for the other team to attack,” Skinner said.

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