Sam Kerr helps Chelsea end Manchester United’s unbeaten WSL start

The gap between Manchester United and Chelsea is closing, but the WSL champions emphasised their continued superiority over United with a hard-earned 3-1 defeat of their title challengers.

It was fitting, somewhat, that the former United starlet Lauren James scored Chelsea’s important second goal in front of a record home crowd of 6,186. James was the talisman of a United team looking to power to the top after being re-formed in 2018, but she spent much of last season on the bench for Chelsea, with Emma Hayes saying she was far from ready for a place in the first team.

James’s goal came four minutes after Sam Kerr had put the first goal past Mary Earps in the league this season. Alessia Russo’s strike helped spark United back to life but they could not find the leveller and Erin Cuthbert’s deflected strike in added time killed things.

Praising James, Chelsea’s general manager, Paul Green, who revealed Hayes would return to the dugout for the team’s game against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge after the international break, said: “We’ve got a hell of a player on our hands, and we just need to keep developing her the right way.”

James said: “It was sweet [scoring against my former club] … Sometimes the fans have booed me here. But I love Chelsea and I’m trying to do my best for them.”

United’s manager, Marc Skinner, said before kick-off: “The great thing about tonight is that we can cause them as many problems as they cause us.” That may have sounded fanciful given United are yet to beat Chelsea, home or away, since they won promotion to the WSL in 2019. Instead, United have now lost five and drawn once, with this fixture last season ending in a bruising 6-1 defeat, but his team are a far grittier beast this season.

At a bitterly cold and rain-swept Leigh Sports Village, where cars queued, barely moving, right up to kick-off to try to squeeze into the car parks that surround the isolated stadium, it was a tightly fought first half, with United edging possession (53%) and the sides having one shot on target apiece.

Chelsea could feel aggrieved to not have been awarded a penalty, with Maya Le Tissier crashing into Guro Reiten’s knee in the box, narrowly missing the ball.

“There was nothing really in it in the first half,” said Skinner. “Second half I felt we were outdone by lapses in concentration and their speed of thought was a little bit quicker than ours, especially at the back. We spoke about their movement, and we need to be better with that.”

On the hour mark came the first shot on target of the second half, and it resulted in Chelsea taking the lead. The usually solid Millie Turner gifted possession to Sophie Ingle and the midfielder found Kerr, who tucked into the bottom corner.

It was quickly followed by the second. Kerr, this time the provider, collected a ball over the top and raced clear on the left before cutting back for James to power in, the 21-year-old sliding to her knees in celebration in front of the United Barmy Army that so worshiped her when she wore red for three years.

United were rocked and the visiting side upped the ante, with Reiten crashing an effort off the post.

The reply came very much against the run of play, but it made the temporarily muted home crowd roar to life. This time it was a Chelsea error. Erin Cuthbert conceded the ball to Ella Toone and the United forward released Russo, who finished coolly past Ann-Katrin Berger.

Lifted by the goal United regained their composure and were threatening, but they could not breach the Chelsea backline again and Cuthbert atoned for her error sending a deflected effort past Earps.

United drop to third, three points behind Chelsea, who have played a game more, while Arsenal moved top after a 4-0 defeat of Leicester City.