Manchester City must take Chelsea claim with pinch of salt ahead of season-defining game

Manchester City can't take their foot of the gas in the title race
Manchester City can't take their foot of the gas in the title race -Credit:Photo by Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When the final whistle blew at Prenton Park on Wednesday night, there will have been few people happier than Lauren Hemp.

The Manchester City forward was watching from the stands as top-four-chasing Liverpool came from behind to topple Chelsea in a pulsating clash that saw the title pendulum swing firmly in the favour of Gareth Taylor's side. The magnitude of the result was such that Emma Hayes went as far as to publicly relinquish her team's Women's Super League (WSL) crown, declaring the title race was "definitely" over.

"I’ve had amazing memories at this football club and we won a lot of things," she told Sky Sports. "I’d love to bring titles again to Chelsea but that’s not going to be this year I’m afraid. We will never give up but the title is far from us, it’s not in our hands."

It's a sentiment that is reflected in the latest predictions from Opta's Supercomputer, which now gives City a 90.7 percent chance of winning the league. But, while the stars seem to be aligning for Taylor's side to secure their first title since 2016 this term, the Blues cannot afford to take their foot off the gas ahead of what is arguably the club's biggest game in more than half a decade.

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City will host third-place Arsenal at the Joie Stadium on Sunday afternoon where a victory would - providing their rivals win all of their remaining games - leave them requiring just a single point from their final match of the season against Aston Villa in order to wrestle the WSL trophy from Chelsea's grasp. Though the Gunners have little left to play for, they are still one of the most formidable sides in the top flight and have already beaten Taylor's side once this season - winning the reverse fixture 2-1 at Meadow Park back in November.

City, meanwhile, have only triumphed in one of the last four WSL meetings between the two teams and, with top scorer Khadija 'Bunny' Shaw ruled out for the season with a broken foot, they will have to be at their best if they are to improve that mediocre record this weekend.

"It’s changed nothing," manager Taylor said when asked on Friday about the significance of Chelsea's defeat on Merseyside. "There’s been a lot of talk around it but the objective is the same, win the next game.

"We kept that as our focus, it’s about not worrying too much about elsewhere, Chelsea are still the champions. We’re fighting for that title but with regards to the other night nothing’s changed to what we face at the weekend."

It is the sort of measured response you would expect from a manager who has seen Chelsea sweep all aside on the domestic stage since he took charge of City in 2020. But while Taylor was never likely to deviate from the 'one game at a time' script in his latest meeting with the media, it is impossible to refute the seismic psychological shift Wednesday night's result will have invoked amongst his players.

No longer the underdogs, City will go into their remaining two games as favourites and will have to shoulder the extra weight of expectation that comes with that. It has to be said that the Blues have not looked phased by any of the curveballs that have been thrown their way in recent months, taking every bit of adversity in their stride.

Since club-record signing Jill Roord ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in January, City have won all of their nine league games, with 22-year-old Jess Park proving herself to be a more-than-capable deputy in the no. 10 role. They have they netted four or more goals in four of their last five games and their victory over Bristol City last weekend was a record-extending 14th WSL win.

Considering the average age of City's squad (24.9) is significantly younger than both Chelsea's (26.25) and Arsenal’s (27), it is quite remarkable that they have flourished, not wilted, amidst the ever-mounting pressure. However, while Hayes might have raised the white flag in the title race - and though her players looked genuinely crestfallen after their latest defeat - only a fool would write Chelsea off entirely at this juncture.

Should City lose against Arsenal and Chelsea win all of their remaining games, the title will be decided on goal difference. Though the Blues currently have an eight-goal buffer in that department, the fact that Hayes' side have played one game less than their title rivals and are to host already-relegated Bristol City this weekend means that gap is not insurmountable.

That Chelsea don't play until after proceedings are concluded in east Manchester on Sunday could prove to be a huge benefit for the reigning champions, who will take to the pitch against the Robins knowing precisely how difficult their assignment is. Certainly, in spite of Hayes' most recent post-match diatribe, Chelsea will be lying in wait for a slip-up from Taylor's side.

City's task now is ensuring they do not give their rivals the opportunity to pounce.