By Christian Radnedge
LONDON (Reuters) – Chelsea kick off their Women’s Super League title defence against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, with players saying the new campaign will be the most competitive yet after the English top flight’s 12 clubs stocked up with new talent.
Emma Hayes’s side have won six out of the last seven WSL titles but the last two seasons have gone down to the final matchday and the strengthening of their rivals will have them looking over their shoulders.
Several teams have made eye-catching signings, with clubs making the most of their joint-funding with the men’s teams. The WSL had almost 100 players representing their nations at the recent World Cup, the most of any league in the world.
Aston Villa, who finished fifth last season under Carla Ward, signed Canadian Olympic gold medal winner Adriana Leon and Netherlands goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar, two of seven signings, as they look to push on in their fourth WSL campaign.
“There will be a target on our backs because we finished as the best of the rest which is what everyone wants… But the expectation from within is far greater than those on the outside,” said Ward, whose side open the season in the early kickoff against Manchester United.
Everton, Liverpool and West Ham United also have eyes on closing that gap to the top, although only the top three qualify for the Champions League.
Former Germany forward Pauline Bremer was the first of 10 new signings for Brighton & Hove Albion, who scraped survival last season. A number of teams involved in a relegation battle last time are setting their sights higher.
Willie Kirk transformed Leicester City when he took charge in November. He had a clearout this summer, as 16 players left while nine have come in, including Canadian forward Deanne Rose and Dutch goalkeeper Lize Kop.
“It’s going to be probably one of the best seasons that we’ve seen in the WSL so far, and it’s going to be the most competitive,” Leicester forward Hannah Cain said.
There have also been wholesale changes at Tottenham who disappointed last year, finishing ninth.
Manager Robert Vilahamn has come in from Sweden’s BK Hacken, and is set on installing a free-flowing, attacking style. Captain Beth England, who scored 12 goals to help keep Spurs up, will be aided up front by American-raised Scotland forward Martha Thomas, who moves from Manchester United.
Of course, the traditional powerhouses should not be forgotten and it is Arsenal who could be the most dangerous. Jonas Eidevall’s side signed England striker Alessia Russo in the summer but surprisingly crashed out of the Champions League in the first qualifying stage to Paris FC.
They will no doubt be extra motivated to get their hands on some domestic silverware again, having been the only team other than Chelsea to win the league in the last seven years.
Former Arsenal midfielder Jill Roord returns to the WSL but this time at Manchester City as the only signing for Gareth Taylor’s side. Nevertheless, the manager is confident his team can claim a second WSL title.
“Last summer we had a lot of incomings and outgoings, with new players coming in… They’ve now had a season under their belt and have a lot more experience,” Taylor said.
“We’re here to win it,” he added.
Manchester United missed out on the title by two points but will mainly be relieved not to have been depleted further after losing Russo on a free.
Goalkeeper Mary Earps, who won the Golden Glove award at the World Cup, was subject to a bid from Arsenal before the transfer window closed but Marc Skinner’s side held on to the 30-year-old.
Liverpool begin their campaign with a daunting trip to face Arsenal at the Emirates, on a day when four of the six opening fixtures will be played at the bigger men’s stadiums.
Promoted Bristol City as well as Leicester will play all their home matches at Ashton Gate and the King Power, respectively.
The Lionesses’ triumph at Euro 2022 resulted in a 170% increase in attendances last season, the FA said.
They are hoping for another bounce this year after England reached the World Cup final in Australia and New Zealand, as the WSL targets becoming the first billion-pound women’s league in the world.
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Editing by Toby Davis)