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Standout performer, best signing & more

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As the curtain comes down on 2022, Chelsea head into 2023 sitting top of the WSL and having qualified for the Champions League quarter-finals as group winners, banishing last season’s European demons.

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The Blues are three points clear at the WSL summit, but have played a game more than their closest title rivals as they attempt to defend their league crown once more.

They successfully navigated a six-week period without Emma Hayes on the touchline, and topped a particularly tough Champions League group. With two fixtures against title rivals Arsenal to look forward to in the new year, 2023 should be a tasty one for Chelsea fans.

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Chelsea went into the 2022/23 season off the back of a domestic double, claiming their third successive WSL title on the final day of the 2021/22 campaign, and beating Manchester City in a breathless FA Cup final. However, having reached their maiden Champions League final in 2021, they followed that up by disappointingly crashing out of the group stages last season.

On the hunt for an unprecedented fourth consecutive WSL title, Chelsea brought in six new faces during the summer transfer window to bolster their chances of competing both domestically and in Europe.

Magdalena Eriksson

Chelsea won the 2021/22 WSL title / Visionhaus/GettyImages

After suffering a shock defeat on the opening day of the season, Chelsea embarked on a nine-game winning run to lift themselves to the league summit heading into 2023 – although they have played a game more than second place Arsenal, who are three points behind. The Blues also navigated a tough Champions League group, doing an impressive double over PSG and succeeding where Manchester City had failed against Real Madrid to finish top of the pile.

A portion of Chelsea’s success during the first half of the season was achieved with Emma Hayes watching on from home, after the Blues boss took a six-week break from football to recover from an emergency hysterectomy that she underwent following her ongoing battle with endometriosis.

General manager Paul Green and assistant coach Denise Reddy led the team in Hayes’s absence, and with the Chelsea boss communicating with the pair from home, the Blues won six from six.

“We have built a tremendous team over many years and we’ve adopted a very multi-disciplinary approach so that if situations like this arise, we are capable of being able to respond to the challenge,” Hayes said.

The Champions League title is the one accolade that has eluded Chelsea since the club established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the women’s game. Having reached the final in 2021, they then suffered a shock group stage exit just seven months later.

Such are Chelsea’s European ambitions, history could not repeat itself this time around. Having been handed a tough group stage draw alongside PSG and Real Madrid, there was little margin for error.

The Blues ensured they got their group stage campaign off to the perfect start against last season’s beaten semi finalists PSG as they secured a really hard fought 1-0 win in Paris. Millie Bright rolled back the months to the Arnold Clark Cup with a well-taken back post volley, while Erin Cuthbert was absolutely outstanding in midfield, seemingly everywhere to break up play and trigger attacks in an all-conquering performance.

It wasn’t a glamorous or emphatic victory, but it was gritty and resilient, and got the Blues on the path to wronging the rights from last season’s European disappointment.

“I think it proves that we can come anywhere, perform and get a good result,” said Paul Green. “To come away from home against PSG and get a 1-0 win is a fantastic result for us. It’ll give us confidence going into the rest of the campaign and maybe it starts to bury some of the demons from last year.”

To then complete the double over PSG in Chelsea’s final match of 2022 with a slick performance and comfortable 3-0 victory was mightily impressive.

Chelsea began the defence of their title in surprisingly underwhelming fashion, as they were beaten 2-1 by newly-promoted Liverpool on the opening day of the WSL campaign.

It looked as though it would be business as usual for the Blues after Fran Kirby put them ahead from the penalty spot after just three minutes. However, Liverpool fought back in the second half with a pair of spot kicks from Katie Stengel – with some really poor defending from the Blues in the buildup to the second – as the Reds ran out 2-1 winners.

Chelsea had 70% possession and completed over double the number of passes as Liverpool, but as Hayes summarised: “I didn’t think we could hit a barn door today.”

There have been big performances across the pitch for Chelsea this season; Lauren James feels like a new signing and is reaping the rewards of being carefully managed during her debut season at the club, turning in a series of stunning displays. Guro Reiten has been awesome down the left flank, with her goal and four assists in the first 45 minutes against Leicester capping an excellent first half of the season.

But for her unrelenting consistency, Erin Cuthbert claims Chelsea’s standout performer title for the first half of the 2022/23 season. Having previously played here, there and everywhere for the Blues, the Scotland international has been deployed solely in central midfield this season and has thrived alongside the similarly excellent Sophie Ingle with her drive, energy and end product.

Her display was pivotal to Chelsea’s huge win over PSG on match day one of the Champions League group stages – an individual performance Paul Green hailed as ‘immense’ – while her half volley against Tottenham was one to savour.

Erin Cuthbert

Cuthbert has been excellent this season / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages

Cuthbert cited her move into central midfield as an important contributing factor in her signing a new deal until 2025 in November, and admitted missing out on Euro 2022 with Scotland helped her learn her new position over the summer.

“Last December during the season, I was kinda thrown in [central midfield], but I didn’t have a lot of time to work on it,” Cuthbert explained.

“But this pre-season, the Euros happening for me, I had a lot of one-on-one time during pre-season to actually solidify and nail down the position and get to know the ins and outs of it.”

Chelsea made six summer signings: Eve Perisset, Kadeisha Buchanan, Lucy Watson, Katerina Svitkova, Johanna Rytting Kaneryd and Jelena Cankovic.

Buchanan and Perisset have seen the most action of the Blues’ summer arrivals, with the addition of the latter particularly important. A lack of strength in depth at fullback had been an area Chelsea had needed to address for a while – the 2021 Champions League final dismantling by Barcelona is a prime example of why.

Perisset has provided versatility; she has played at right-back in a back four, right wing-back and as one of three central defenders so far this season. The French international’s pinpoint delivery has caught the eye, while she has proved to be robust defensively – her performance up against Aston Villa’s Kirsty Hanson in October was particularly impressive.

“She’s adjusting,” Hayes said of Perisset in December. “She was already a good footballer but speaking the language, getting to know her team-mates, playing consistently with her team-mates, she will just get better and better as she settles in really nicely. Her set-pieces are immense.”

Chelsea already had previous when it came to scoring bangers at Stamford Bridge in the WSL, as Bethany England can proudly attest.

When they returned to the Bridge to face Tottenham in November, it was Erin Cuthbert’s turn to steal the headlines with a long range stunner of her own. The midfielder cushioned Reiten’s out swinging corner on her chest, watched it bounce and then unleashed a stunning half volley that arced into the top corner. Sumptuous.

After losing their opening game of the season, Chelsea have hardly missed a beat this term, winning 14 of their last 15 matches. And the scary thing is, they don’t even appear to be playing their best football yet.

Everything seemed to click in the Blues’ final game of 2022, with a 3-0 win over PSG – a performance Hayes labelled her ‘favourite of the season’.

Chelsea have been without record signing Pernille Harder since November due to a hamstring injury, but she has not left a gaping hole in the side, and the Blues have won six from seven in her absence, a demonstration of their quite frankly outrageous squad depth.

With two league fixtures against Arsenal to come in 2023, the WSL title race promises to be a fascinating one. As Chelsea continue to move through the gears, they could just edge it again to secure a fourth successive title.

Predicted finish: 1st

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