Palace Ladies took a brave step, further into their new era on Sunday, as they entertained multi--trophy winning Chelsea Women at Hayes Lane in The Continental Tyres Cup.
In what could only be described as the biggest game in Palace Ladies history, it was an opportunity for players to match themselves against some of the very best in world football.
In front of their biggest crowd of the season so far, Palace knew that they would be in for a challenging, but thoroughly rewarding afternoon. Speaking before the game, Palace manager, Dean Davenport enthused,
“This is a terrific day for everyone at the club, and a real sign of what progress we have made. To be facing Chelsea and players such as Fran Kirby and alike, will be something very special. That said, we do not intend to be here to soak up the occasion. We have worked hard to try and compete and have put the disappointment of the Leicester game behind us. Of course, we have to be realistic as to our ambition in a game like this, but you can be sure that we will be giving it our all.”
As would be expected, the game saw Chelsea dominate possession, with Palace working very hard to retain shape and negate opportunities for the visitors, who return to Champion’s League action this week. With a line up of full international players, Chelsea moved the ball with efficiency and class, often thwarted only by last ditched tackles or good goalkeeping by Megen Lynch.
The deadlock was broken in the tenth minute when Adelina Engmen was set free by an inch perfect pass from the world-class Kirby, and slotting home, passed the frustrated Lynch. Undeterred, Palace dug deep and continued to work their hardest to thwart Chelsea. Despite a couple of chances for the visitors, it was Palace who had a significant opportunity, as they began to settle into the match. In the 31st minute, the ball broke loose for the industrious Chloe Burr, who raced into the box and whose shot was parried by Lizzie Durack in the Chelsea goal, to deny an historic goal for The Eagles.
Minutes later, it was Burr at the other end, who after an uncharacteristic mistake in the defensive third, recovered brilliantly to block the ensuing shot from Maria Thorisdottir. The resulting loose ball was then blazed wide by England from close range. The remainder of the half saw both teams with half chances but nobody able to add to the score-line.
At the end of what had been an entertaining and intriguing first half, Palace went in, with their pride, very much in tact.
The second period started with Chelsea clearly looking to step up the pressure. Their passing and dominance appeared to unsettle Palace in an initial fifteen minutes that showed the real differences between the fully professional tier of one club and the part-time, semi-professionals such as Palace. Despite another outstanding save by Lynch in the 50th minute, this time from Erin Cuthbert, Palace were unable to prevent Chelsea doubling their lead six minutes later when England sprung the Palace back line and fired the ball into the far corner. Almost before Palace could react, Drew Spence added a third after some good work saw her initial shot hit the post, but the ball fell kindly for her to tap in on the hour mark.
Typically, Palace refused to bow to the pressure and worked hard to keep their composure, shape and discipline; but were undone, for the final time, by a goal of pure class, that would have graced any game. A perfectly weighted ball to Kirby, on the edge of the box, was exquisitely backheeled into the path of Bethany England who expertly fired home in the 64th minute.
The remainder of the half saw spells of Palace showing ability beyond determination; with some impressive possession and distribution, with notable contributions from Jade Keogh and Ashlee Hincks.
At the other end, Palace worked tirelessly to prevent any further Chelsea threats, often through the outstanding continued early season form of Lynch and, where needed, assisted by her team mates, notably Megan Chandler and Hannah Mackenzie in the dying minutes. Ironically, it was the supremely talented Fran Kirby who had the last say, latching on to a loose pass on the edge of the box, rounded Lynch and managed to shoot wide, although this did not distract from what was a hugely professional and clinical performance from the entire Chelsea set-up.
Speaking after the game, Davenport was in upbeat mood as he reflected on the afternoon's work.
“I am very proud of the effort of every player today. Each and every one put in a huge shift, and stuck to what was asked. We have some tired legs coming off the pitch, having been fully worked by one of the best teams in European football. When you look at the immense quality that we were up against today, how could you be anything but proud? At 1-0 up and going so close through Chloe on the half hour, things could have been different at half time, but that opening twenty minutes or so of the second half was critical and showed what Chelsea had in their locker. Last week, we were all aware of our shortcomings, but this week, we can hold our heads up high after an honest and professional performance.”
Looking ahead to a busy week Davenport added;
“We had to go into the game today with an eye on the crucial league matches at Lewes and Millwall in the next week and will use the coming few days to help get the players who were in action today, ready for these games. The good thing is we can all take learning from today into those games and the rest of the season, as we continue to develop at this level.”
Palace head to Lewes on Wednesday and Millwall on Sunday in The FA Women’s Championship as they return to league action after this match against their London neighbours.