The last time Chelsea hosted Manchester United in a game that had a huge bearing on the title race, Sam Kerr was the star, scoring two stunning goals as Chelsea came from behind twice to secure a 4-2 win on the final day of last season and take the title ahead of Arsenal.
For this meeting at Kingsmeadow, the stage was set and ready for viewers to enjoy live on BBC Two, with United the league leaders and in with a chance of moving four points clear of Chelsea, having played a game more than the holders. Chelsea, meanwhile, were ready to take the pretenders down a peg or two and leapfrog them.
The latter scenario played out as Kerr delivered again, and once more in style, taking down Lauren James’s beautifully delivered long ball and lifting it over Mary Earps before wheeling away to celebrate with James in the first half of a 1-0 win that put Chelsea two points clear of United.
What was missing, though, for those watching at home – or for anyone wanting to relive the moment later – was the build-up, half-time analysis and commentary that becomes a part of the game’s narrative.
With BBC pundits and commentators joining their colleagues in stepping back from sports programmes after Gary Lineker was penalised for voicing his opinions on the government’s immigration policy, coverage of the showpiece fixture was greatly diminished. Nigel Adderley’s commentary for international broadcast was played on BBC Two and at half-time the broadcaster aired highlights of last weekend’s league cup final.
Emma Hayes made four changes to the team that beat Brighton on Wednesday night, with James, Ann-Katrin Berger, Eve Perisset and Sophie Ingle all returned to the starting XI. Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert were out of the squad altogether, alongside the longer-term absentees Fran Kirby, Pernille Harder and Katerina Svitkova.
For United there was greater familiarity to the starting XI, with Nikita Parris back in the team having dropped to the bench for their 5-1 win against Leicester last weekend.
With such upheaval among Chelsea’s ranks and with the team having suffered a bruising Continental League Cup defeat against Arsenal last Sunday, United arrived at Kingsmeadow with a real chance of causing an upset.
Marc Skinner had insisted before kick-off that “this game won’t define the title”, yet no title-winning side has won the league without beating Chelsea away since Liverpool’s WSL title win in 2014.
Skinner’s side started the game brightly, but they had few meaningful chances to show for it. Instead it was Kerr, who had six goals and two assists in five WSL games against United before this match, who hinted at the threat that even a disjointed Chelsea still pose. Twice in three minutes Kerr was unleashed, forcing a low save from Earps after latching on to Amy Turner’s misjudged long ball, then racing through the middle shoulder to shoulder with Hannah Blundell only to see her shot foiled by Earps once more.
Kerr’s seventh league goal against United was coming and it was worth the wait, with James sending a sublime sweeping ball down over the shoulder of Kerr from her own half and the Australian forward bringing it down with her chest before lashing in.
United could feel aggrieved at the break as they had two strong penalty shouts waved away by the referee Cheryl Foster, with Kadeisha Buchanan tangling with Parris for the first and Jess Carter flying late into Ona Batlle as she leapt to head the ball.
United wilted in the second half, but the arrival of the substitutes Rachel Williams and Martha Thomas injected some energy back into the visiting team.
It was too little too late; instead, Chelsea went closest again, with Melanie Leupolz firing over unmarked from near the penalty spot.
This had been billed as United’s moment; instead it showed just how far they still have to go to catch Chelsea.