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UNC Soccer: Arsenal’s two Tar Heels shine in record-setting clash with Chelsea

Alessia Russo scored twice and Lotte Wubben-Moy was a rock in defense as the Gunners drew level with Chelsea for first place

Arsenal FC v Chelsea FC - Barclays Women’s Super League Photo by Alex Burstow/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsenal Women have been setting attendance records in the last two seasons, as they are getting more and more matches scheduled at Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal men’s team. The Emirates seats 60,704 supporters, as opposed to Meadow Park, Arsenal Women’s normal home, which can only accommodate 4,500.

Chelsea, champions of the Barclays Women’s Super League the last four years running (and six of the last seven) came into the match top of the table on 22 points, with Arsenal nipping at their heels with 19. Lose to Chelsea, and the gap would be too large to catch, but draw (or better yet win!), and the title is suddenly up for grabs.

This was high stakes football. To add to the drama, the game was televised live on the BBC in the UK (Paramount+ in the US), and a WSL record crowd of 59,042 were on hand to witness history in person:

Arsenal were up for the challenge. From the opening moments of the game, they challenged Chelsea’s control with running power, utilizing the Emirates’ longer and wider pitch to hoof long passes down the channels for their wings to run on to. UNC alum Alessia Russo harried and harassed Chelsea’s back line, forcing hurried passes from goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger that went right back to Arsenal, squeezing Chelsea in their own half like a vice.

Beth Mead, the England striker and Golden Boot winner from Euro 2022, continued to mark her triumphant return from ACL surgery with a surgical left-footed strike to the top left corner, putting Arsenal on the board first.

Chelsea answered five minutes later on a skidding shot to the bottom right corner from Johanna Kaneryd. There is no VAR in the WSL, but if there was, the goal would surely be chalked off since Sam Kerr was obstructing the goalkeeper in an off-side position.

No matter to Arsenal. They continued to kill Chelsea on the counter attack, relentlessly fizzing deep passes into green grass for their wingers and Alessia Russo at the point of attack to chase. It was an attack into space that forced Chelsea to head a dangerous ball in the box out for a corner, and Amanda Ilestedt headed the Gunners back into the lead.

Ilestedt partnered with UNC alum Lotte Wubben-Moy in central defense to great effect. The pair funneled attacks to protect their goalkeeper, and Wubben-Moy showed her ever-growing quality passing the ball into dangerous positions for her wingers in attack. She has grabbed a starting position with both hands, with England captain Leah Williamson still recovering from an ACL injury, and should be seeing more games for the Lionesses soon.

Three minutes after Ilestedt’s goal, Lia Wälti pumped another deep pass into the channel. Alessia Russo squirmed out from in-between two Chelsea defenders, took the ball in stride, and struck sweetly with her right foot. 3-1.

The second half never saw Chelsea climb back into the match, despite gaining a bit more control after making three halftime substitutions. Arsenal were on another counter-attack, and Russo was fed a through ball into the box by Victoria Pelova, and was bundled down by the keeper. Arsenal’s captain and primary penalty-taker Kim Little had just been substituted for injury 13 minutes earlier, so Russo took the ball. Chelsea’s Berger guessed the right direction, but Russo’s strike was too strong and too deep into the corner to stop. 4-1.

Arsenal are now level with Chelsea for first place on points, but are three goals behind on goal difference. Yesterday’s winning margin helped Arsenal close a huge deficit.

Any UNC fans visiting London will have two more opportunities to see Arsenal Women and their two Tar Heels play at the Emirates. They host Manchester United on February 18, and Tottenham Hotspur on March 3.