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Welcome to another Tuesday edition of 31/7. Today, it's all about Chelsea and Arsenal. Specifically, I've been thinking about:
  • when is the best moment to call time on your hopes and dreams
  • why Lauren James is so shy
  • socks
  • whether leopards can ever change their spots
I hope you enjoy it. Catch up soon :)


It's Over (slightly)

Arsenal are out of the title race after a piss-poor performance against league leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Friday. I think.

As captain Kim Little put it, the Gunners' chances "slipped away slightly". Uh, yeh. After passing up the opportunity to close the gap with the holders, her side's hope depends on both Chelsea and Manchester City dropping six points in the next six games. Arsenal have already lost four games this season, which is twice the maximum number of defeats suffered by any Women's Super League champion since the division's inception in 2010.

The good news for the rest of us, though, is that with just quarter of the season left, there aren't one but two teams that have lost two games. Those teams have each drawn one game too, leaving them exactly level on points. This makes for an exciting climax as Man City bid to prevent Chelsea from winning their fifth successive title.
But you wonder how likely a Chelsea surrender is. In both their WSL game against Arsenal on Friday and their Continental Cup semi-final against Man City the other week, they looked pretty unruffled by the teams meant to be their fiercest contenders.

Unfortunately, though his own title hopes disappeared weeks ago, Marc Skinner could yet have a big role to play in this season's title race. Fired up by a slim chance of scraping into a Champions League qualifying spot, Manchester United stand between both Chelsea and City and the end of their respective seasons. City must also play Arsenal, while in-form Liverpool have a decent chance of tripping up the reigning champions.

I think it's gonna be a good one.

The Silent Assassin

Everything was set up for Chelsea to lose on Friday night. Sam Kerr and Millie Bright have both been out for a while, then Mia Fishel's ACL went t'other week. On Thursday, Hayes announced that Nathalie Björn, Maren Mjelde, and Mayra Ramirez had joined them in the medical room.

With her resources limited, Hayes' also pissed off at least one of her fit and healthy players by flippantly suggesting that relationships between teammates are "inappropriate". Defender Jess Carter, who has been with Blues 'keeper Ann-Katrin Berger for six years, made her thoughts on the matter known by liking lots of tweets criticising Hayes on the eve of one of the biggest matches of the season.

But any psychological advantage that Arsenal might have brought to Stamford Bridge disappeared when it emerged that the Gunners kit man had failed to pack the right socks. Kick off was delayed by half an hour while Arsenal purchased grey socks from the Chelsea club shop and obscured (sort of) their rivals' badge with tape.
After a week in which Arsenal have been linked with young shot-stoppin' superstar Daphne van Domselaar, Reds' keeper Manu Zinsberger could have done with a better excuse than socks for her failure to keep out Lauren James' opener 15 minutes into the game. She got in the way of the strike, but LJ's zing was so extreme that the ball looped over her head and the line, where Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy got in each other's way as they tried in vain to clear it away.

Sjouke Nüsken's assist was a beauty, and James made Steph Catley all sick 'n' dizzy with her feintin' 'n' quick-steppin' before she pulled the trigger. The deflected finish won't rank highly among some of the stunners LJ has pulled off this season but she celebrated in style nonetheless.
James's free-roaming attacking role caused chaos for Arsenal, who couldn't figure out who should be responsible for this tricksy bugger who kept popping up in random places all over the attacking third. This is a 22-year-old who does exactly what she wants on the football pitch and loves every second — just don't ask her to talk about it afterwards.

One minute she's giving it all gun fingers down the throat of the Sky TV cameras, then when she's handed a mic, stood next to the pitch she's just disrespected with her abundant vision and tekkerz, she won't say boo to a goose, or even Karen Carney.

Sport is an emotional game, and in moments of heightened emotion, your inhibitions are down and you might just blab any old thing. This is why clubs instruct their players strictly on how to behave when pulled to speak to broadcasters after the final whistle. It helps to stop them blaming the coach's tactics, mouthing off about the referee, or generally coming across like a dickhead in a way that is detrimental to the club they're playing for.

But Chelsea had no need to worry about Lauren getting overexcited. At the end of the game Carney, who was the 2014 WSL's top scorer before she was a pundit, invited LJ to reflect on her outstanding performance.

"I don't really think about it," she said. "I kind of just do what the opposition's given me. I just try my best". Really? That simple?

When you see someone play with so much ease as James, your want to understand what the hell is going on there. Is there magic in those boots? What did you eat for breakfast? The scary thing is that if there is a secret, then Lauren James doesn't know what it is either.

Comeback (pending)

"I genuinely believe Hannah has all the ability to become the best in the world," Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said of Hannah Hampton's performance, once she had finished waxing lyrical about LJ.

Hampton is back in business after the kind of career blip which many players never recover from. At the start of last season, she ought to have been bouncing after being part of the England squad which lifted the European Championship. Instead, she was left out of teams and squads by both her club and her country.

"Something happened," Aston Villa boss Carla Ward said, mysteriously, "we decided it was in the best interests of the team and the squad for her to stay at home".

Meanwhile, Sarina Wiegman explained that Hampton had "personal things" to work on as she refused to call her up for England duties.

Hampton released a statement on her Twitter account which claimed her being left out was due to a 'small medical procedure', but noises from elsewhere suggested that her coaches were struggling to manage her attitude problems.

What really went down remains unclear, but it seemed like an early indication that she might not be cut out for a life as a professional goalkeeper. I wondered if she might quietly disappear, to become an alien, forgotten face at the back of the crowd lifting the Euro 2022 trophy.
Last summer, Hampton joined Chelsea on a free transfer. This seemed like an odd choice, since the Blues already boasted two strong choices for a first-team 'keeper in Ann-Katrin Berger and Zećira Mušović. But seven months later, Hampton has happily stolen the gloves from her more experienced teammates and is helping the Blues toward their seventh WSL trophy. That's a quick turnaround for a new goalkeeper. She must be doing something right.

However, her reaction when Arsenal snatched a late consolation at Stamford Bridge tells you that she's not out of the woods just yet. There wasn't a lot she could do as Kim Little's strike deflected heavily off Cat Macario into the back of her net. But the manner of the goal mattered little to the youngster, who wanted to prove something with a clean sheet against one of the league's strongest teams.

With Alessia Russo and Beth Mead pouncing on the ball for a quick restart to the game, Hampton snatched it from the ground and booted it high into the air. The ref booked her.

The mini-tantrum didn't stop Hayes giving her a glowing appraisal in her post-match press conference. Rather, her manager's comments revealed why her move to Chelsea was a match made in heaven.

Speaking about LJ's "playground" playing style, Hayes admitted that James is not easy to manage, and that she and Sarina Wiegman are in regular communication about how to get the best out of her. She likes it, though. "I do really well with maverick players," Hayes said.

But after Hayes leaves to take the USA job in the summer, it's unclear who will be responsible for Hampton — and whether that person will be able to handle her temperament.

More at The Square Ball

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by Flora Snelson

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