'Wembley nightmare' a distant memory as world-class Kerr keeps Chelsea in pole position for WSL title

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Match statistics: Manchester City 2-2 Chelsea

"Wembley nightmare". That is how Sam Kerr’s performance for Chelsea against Manchester City in August was described.

The Blues still won the game and the Women’s Community Shield, but Kerr’s performance came under the microscope after she missed three big chances that you would back a world-class talent like her to put away.

Ever since that game, any doubters have been silenced. Game after game, Kerr has produced goals and assists, has formed a record-breaking partnership with Fran Kirby and, on Wednesday, provided a crucial goal and penalty-winning run against City that could well see Chelsea pip their opponents to the Women’s Super League title.

"It’s ludicrous to think that people were saying what they were saying about Sam," manager Emma Hayes said after the game, reflecting on the beginning of the campaign.

"This is a player that was creating chances for fun. Maybe not finishing at that point, but you have to respect the ease at which she used to go beyond players.

"Now, she’s got the whole package. Her hold-up play, her link play, her role from set pieces, her ability to run behind, her transition play, everything.

"I think she is playing the best football of her career. I thought she was the difference tonight for us."

Hayes has been vocal in her support for Kerr from day one. The Australia international came into the league as a superstar - then the record goal-scorer in her native W-League and also the United States’ NWSL, widely regarded as the best league in the world. She is still only 27 years old.

The expectations have been high as a result, and when she has not put the ball in the back of the net, the criticism has been very loud. Despite that, Kerr has marked her first season in England with a WSL-best 18 goals in the competition, and 24 in all competitions.

Chelsea celebrate 2020-21

But Kerr is more than just goals. The partnership she has formed with Kirby, the only player perhaps who can pip her to any individual awards this season, has been phenomenal. The pair have combined for nine goals this season in the league, matching an all-time WSL record with two games to spare.

Kerr’s ability to pull wide and allow others to run into the space she leaves centrally, and her awareness of those around her to either create that space or directly create chances, have always been features as big in her game as her goals.

At Chelsea, she has done that with Kirby - and Beth England when the two play together - and it was also prevalent in her days with the Chicago Red Stars, where she formed a deadly duo with Yuki Nagasato.

On Wednesday, City did not know how to deal with her. For the first goal, she caused problems down the right that Alex Greenwood initially saw to, blocking her shot, but the resulting corner was powerfully headed into the back of the net by the Aussie for 1-0.

The second goal, less than 10 minutes after a City equaliser, was not even hers, but it was her best moment of the game that created it.

Running one-on-one at Greenwood, Kerr slipped the ball through the defender’s legs, raced past her, drove into the box and was brought down by goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck.

That Pernille Harder slotted home from 12 yards proved huge, as City would come charging back to equalise in what proved to be a 2-2 draw.

The result leaves Chelsea two points clear of City, with two games to go. The Blues have Women’s Champions League semi-finals to navigate, which could have an impact, but when they have players in form like Kerr is, with eight goals in five games, more matches are to be welcomed, rather than worried about.

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"She’s relentless," Hayes added. "A wonderful athlete, a wonderful human. She delivered the biggest moments for the team when it mattered [on Wednesday] and she’s doing it time and time again."

As the season comes to a close, and Chelsea chase down an incredible quadruple, Kerr’s name is primed to be thrown into the ring for award after award.

To think that at the start of this campaign some doubted her world-class talent is now laughable.