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Liverpool face greatest test on Women's Super League return

Liverpool Echo logo Liverpool Echo 14/09/2022 Hannah Pinnock
Liverpool Women begin their Women's Super League campaign against Chelsea this weekend. © Photo by Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images Liverpool Women begin their Women's Super League campaign against Chelsea this weekend.

It’s the moment Liverpool have been waiting for since their relegation from the FA Women’s Super league was confirmed in July 2020.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cancellation of matches, they weren’t afforded the opportunity to play their way to safety as the final standings in 2019/20 was decided on a points-per-game basis. However, just one win in 14 league games painted an agonising picture for the Reds and showed the reality of where they were as a team.

Fast forward two years, they’re preparing for their return to the top flight with a rejuvenated team under manager Matt Beard. The 44-year-old guided the club to back-to-back league titles in 2013 and 2014 and he returned to Merseyside at the start of last season with the challenge of bringing them back to the big stage.

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He did just that as Liverpool ended the campaign 11 points clear at the top of the table with 16 wins from a possible 22. Now, he must ensure his team gets off to the best possible start as the new WSL season kicks off this weekend and it's essential they cement their place as a top-flight team once again.

Liverpool were supposed to begin the season last weekend away at Reading, but the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II resulted in football across the country being postponed as a sign of respect. Now, they’ll welcome reigning champions Chelsea to Prenton Park on Sunday with an earlier kick-off time of 5:00pm.

The Reds have beaten Chelsea on just three occasions in their history and managed a 1-1 draw against them at home back in 2019/20 - one of three draws Liverpool secured before the season was curtailed. Emma Hayes’ side were crowned champions that year and they went on to lift the title in both 2020/21 and 2021/22.

Hayes has been at the helm at Chelsea for a little over 10 years and has turned them into a powerhouse of the women’s game. She’s won five WSL titles while in charge of the London club, securing the first in 2015. Her tactical nous, exceptional player management skills and unrivalled charisma makes her one of the best in the business and top of Chelsea’s targets this season will be securing a fourth consecutive league title.

For them, that starts on Sunday when they visit Liverpool. But Beard is building something notable himself and will believe his side can do more than just survive in the league this season.

Unlike years gone by, the core of the squad has remained the same this summer. They’ve tied down key names to new contracts, with Leanne Kiernan, Niamh Fahey, Leighanne Robe, Megan Campbell, Rachael Laws, Melissa Lawley and academy graduate Missy Bo Kearns among those to pen a fresh deal in recent months.

They’ve also recruited well with the addition of former Red Shanice van de Sanden, the arrival of Finnish international Emma Koivisto and they’ve brought in experience with Gilly Flaherty. Goalkeeper Eartha Cumings also joined in the summer and the club recently confirmed Charlotte Wardlaw has rejoined the club on loan from Chelsea.

Pre-season, although not always a clear indication of where a team will be when competitive football kicks off, has been extremely positive for Liverpool. They started off strong with a 6-0 win over Nottingham Forest, before beating Blackburn 3-1 soon after. Beard’s side also beat WSL opposition Aston Villa 1-0 and West Ham 5-0 before they drew 1-1 with Man City in a behind-closed-doors friendly to finish off their preparations at the end of last month.

The jump from the Championship to the WSL is big, the struggles of recently promoted sides over the last few years will have acted as a clear warning to Liverpool as they worked over the summer. In their first season in the top flight, Villa escaped relegation on the final day but they found themselves locked in a tussle with Bristol City and Birmingham City for the majority of the 2020/21 campaign. Leicester City lost 17 of their 22 games last season following their promotion and only finished two points clear of relegated Birmingham.

It was supposed to be a double-header for Liverpool this weekend as both their senior men’s and women’s teams were due to take on Chelsea. However, the men’s clash at Stamford Bridge has been postponed following consultations with the clubs, police and local safety advisory groups, with the announcement made on Monday.

Supporters, though, can still purchase tickets for Sunday’s game at Prenton Park with tickets ranging from £5 for concessions and £7.50 for adults. They can be bought here.

The WSL is a league of tight margins and every point will be crucial for Liverpool if they’re to survive the drop and show just how far they’ve come under Beard. Chelsea is arguably the greatest test they could face on the opening day as they lost just two league games on their road to glory last term.

Arsenal were the only team to take points off them both home and away, with a 3-2 win over Hayes’ side on the opening day followed by a draw in February earlier this year. Chelsea also suffered a shock defeat away at Reading in December and Brighton managed a 0-0 draw the following game.

Liverpool will hope they can begin the season with a huge upset and get off to the strongest possible start, especially considering their schedule won’t get any easier with a Merseyside derby at Anfield to follow on September 25.

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