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Manchester City 2 (Scott 23, Duggan 33) Chelsea 1 (Flaherty 70)
Chelsea's hopes of a first ever WSL title were shattered as they were beaten by an inspired Manchester City side at the Manchester Regional Arena.
After going two goals behind in the first half, including a wonder goal from England striker Toni Duggan, Chelsea threw everything at ten-player City in the dying minutes but could not find a way through for the goal that would have crowned them as Champions, and qualifying for the Champions League in second place will be of little consolation to them right now.
With the Continental Cup Final coming up on Thursday, City rested England stars Karen Bardsley and Steph Houghton but looked comfortable during the opening stages, despite Ji So-Yun curling a free kick just past the post.
However things started to go wrong for Chelsea in the eleventh minute as goalkeeper Marie Hourihan rose to collect a free kick and landed heavily following a collision with Georgia Brougham. Hourihan was clearly in pain and left the pitch with a suspected broken collarbone, to be replaced by Clare Farrow.
City created the first clear opening shortly afterwards as Duggan picked out Natasha Flint with a good pass but the youngster's lob was narrowly off target. Chelsea hit back straight away with Eniola Aluko attacking down the left and crossing from the line, but Yuki Ogimi's far post header was cleared off the line by Abbie McManus.
City continued to look confident going forward and they were rewarded on 23 minutes. Jill Scott picked the ball up and drilled a low shot from 25 yards which beat Farrow at her near post.
With Scott in outstanding form and Keira Walsh superb alongside her in midfield, City were still having the better of things and a crucial 60 seconds led to them doubling their lead.
A long ball from Ana Borges released Aluko through on goal but she was denied by a fine save from Alex Brooks, who blocked her goalbound shot with an outstretched leg. City immediately went on the attack and Scott was again heavily involved, powering her way to the line and cutting the ball back for Duggan to perfectly execute a chest trap and volley into the top corner for a stunning goal.
Chelsea looked shellshocked by the double setback but tried to get themselves back into the game before the break. Gilly Flaherty headed just wide from a free kick and Aluko saw a snap shot saved by Brooks at her near post but City were worthy of their two-goal lead at half time.
It could have been three early in the second half when Duggan spread the ball out wide to the lively Krystle Johnston whose cross bounced nicely for Flint but, with the goal gaping, she could not direct her header on target.
Chelsea carried the game to their opponents but could not make their way through a determined City defence who stood firm. They also continued to look sharp on the break with Johnston making another good run and cross for Issy Christiansen to fire narrowly wide.
A scramble from a corner almost got Chelsea back in the game, Flaherty's downward header was turned goalwards by Aluko but Walsh was well placed to clear off the line.
However three minutes later, Chelsea grabbed the lifeline they desperately needed as Danielle Buet's corner was met by a powerful header from Flaherty which flashed into the back of the net.
Moments later another corner could have led to an equaliser but this time Flaherty could only get in a glancing header - and this diverted the ball away from the oncoming Rachel Williams as she looked poised to score.
The introduction Buet had given Chelsea extra impetus on the right and both she and Hannah Blundell pressed forward at every opportunity. City were coming under increasing pressure and it seemed as though they were going to crack when McManus, who had had a fine game in the centre, clashed with Laura Bassett and was red carded for elbowing the Chelsea defender - a moment's indiscretion which will rule her out of the Continental Cup Final.
As the news came though that Liverpool were now in the driving seat and Birmingham City were one goal away from the title, Chelsea now desperately needed an equaliser and threw everything but the kitchen sink at the home defence.
A good opportunity came as a corner was half cleared into the path of Jackie Groenen but she lifted her shot over the bar from just inside the area. Blundell also shot wide as Chelsea were now camped in the last twenty yards of the pitch.
Chelsea reined crosses into the City area but Scott, Emma Lipman and substitute Chelsea Nightingale dealt with them expertly and the impressive Brooks' handling was faultless when called upon.
The game went into injury time and Blundell swung in a cross to the far post for Ogimi whose diving header looked to be arrowing inside the post but Brooks dived to her left to pull off a brilliant save. The resulting corner led to a huge scramble in the six yard area but Flaherty could not force the ball home and Williams' looping header was held by Brooks and the final chance was gone.
The Chelsea players sank to the turf on the final whistle, desolate and inconsolable, and much of the ground was in a state of bewilderment over what had happened. It should not be forgotten, though, that it had been a great performance and result from a young Manchester City side who will go into Thursday night's Final full of confidence.
Manchester City: Alex Brooks, Nicki Harding, Georgia Brougham (sub Dani Young 90mins), Keira Walsh, Abbie McManus, Emma Lipman, Krystle Johnston, Jill Scott, Toni Duggan, Natasha Flint (sub Chelsea Nightingale 77mins), Issy Christiansen. Subs not used: Betsy Hassett, Emma Kete.
Chelsea: Marie Hourihan (sub Clare Farrow 11mins), Ana Borges (sub Danielle Buet 57mins), Hannah Blundell, Katie Chapman, Gilly Flaherty, Laura Bassett, Yuki Ogimi, Rachel Williams, Eniola Aluko, Ji So-Yun, Drew Spence (sub Jackie Groenen 35mins). Subs not used: Emma Wilhelmsson, Claire Rafferty, Laura Coombs. Anne Meiwald.
(top) Toni Duggan volleys home Manchester City's second goal
(middle) Georgia Brougham and Alex Brooks combine to keep out Eniola Aluko
(bottom) Rachel Williams tries to head the ball in during the goalmouth scramble in injury time
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