Who says Manchester City will not be in the Champions League next season? And who on earth claims they cannot win the title this spring? Alan Mahon’s City women are not only exempt from the European ban clouding Pep Guardiola’s horizon but sit top of their table, one point ahead of Chelsea and three in front of the defending Women’s Super League champions, Arsenal.
Given that Chelsea have a game in hand on City, much hinges on their trip north to the Academy Stadium on Sunday. Emma Hayes’s side have not lost in the WSL this season and, having defeated the leaders 2-1 at Kingsmeadow in December, are approaching the subplot-rich rematch in confident mood.
For neutrals, the game is a chance to compare and contrast two of England’s foremost strikers – City’s Ellen White and Chelsea’s Beth England – but the tactical duel between the vastly experienced Hayes and her interim counterpart also looks intriguing.
Mahon is holding the fort in Manchester following Nick Cushing’s abrupt departure this month to become the assistant manager of MLS New York City. The former Ireland attacking midfielder’s claim to fame is the solitary appearance he made for Sporting Lisbon – a 4-0 Champions League defeat at Real Madrid – after joining the Portuguese aristocrats on a free from Tranmere, but Mahon subsequently enjoyed a quietly effective career with Blackburn, Wigan and Burnley.
The same could be said of the past five years he has spent assisting Cushing in Manchester and although he protests his new role is merely about continuity – “I’m not looking to put my stamp on the team; I’ll keep it simple,” says Mahon – Hayes is unlikely to underestimate a manager enjoying his moment in the sun.
Mahon has daughters aged 10 and seven who have grown up idolising those City and England mainstays Steph Houghton and Jill Scott. If Houghton’s likely duel with Chelsea’s England seems pivotal, Cushing’s parting media message was to emphasise her indispensability to both club and country. “If we don’t play Steph Houghton in the England team we have no hope and you can hold me to that,” he said. “She’s by far the best defender and by far the most driven professional we have.”
Cushing’s successor endorses those sentiments. “It’s massive to have Steph as a role model,” Mahon says. “Players like Steph and Jill give my daughters hope and inspiration. They show you can do anything.”
Houghton and Scott began their careers in an era when menstruation was rarely mentioned in the female sporting sphere but research indicating that women footballers are more prone to rupturing cruciate ligaments during the first half, or pre-ovulatory phase, of their cycle has dragged it into the spotlight. Ever the innovator, Hayes individually tailors Chelsea players’ training regimes to their cycles.
“It’s a subject that’s been a taboo and there’ve been a lot of unknowns so for us to bring it into the open will be really helpful,” says a manager who believes hers is the first club to adapt training schedules and nutrition plans to period patterns. “Understanding the cycle is one part of the holistic understanding to help players prepare. It helps formulate decisions about each individual from day to day.”
If minimising ACL knee tears represents an important plus, the potential downside is an excess of introspection and self-obsession but, considering Chelsea are on a run of nine straight wins and have kept five consecutive clean sheets, the new regimen can hardly be said to have disrupted the team ethic.
Hayes though is aware her side have never won a WSL fixture at City. “If we’re going to win up there for the first time since I’ve been manager I want to make sure we produce a higher level of performance than I’ve seen from the team recently,” she says. “Our performances have been mixed in the past couple of games.
“Man City are a top side and there’s very little between us. But this is the most consistent Chelsea team I’ve managed. We’ve been able to grind results out, even when we haven’t been at our best.”