The 2021/22 WSL season promises to be biggest and best yet, with fans returning to stadiums properly for the first time in 18 months and a never before seen television spotlight.
The 2019/20 WSL campaign, which was riding on the feel-good wave of the 2019 World Cup, was abandoned when the coronavirus pandemic struck, while the vast majority of last season had to be played behind closed doors.
But with restrictions now lifted allowing fans back in, as well as a £7m per season television broadcasting deal with Sky Sports and BBC that will push live WSL games to a wider audience than ever before, this is a bold new era for the rapidly growing league.
On the pitch, the competition threatens to be fierce. Three clubs think they can win the title, two others have eyes on breaking into the Champions League places and most of the rest of the sides are at least have potential for a top half finish if they find a degree of consistency and beat their rivals.
It is difficult to look beyond Chelsea being crowned WSL champions for the third season in a row. They still have the best squad, having lost no one of note during the summer and added rising Dutch defender Aniek Nouwen and generational talent Lauren James.
Manchester City have a squad full of outstanding players, but their depth simply cannot match Chelsea’s. They are too light in defence, which would leave them vulnerable in the event of injuries. Arsenal are similar in that they too have an exceptional first XI but lack depth in midfield.
Manchester United have had a challenging summer, taking 11 weeks to appoint a successor to former manager Casey Stoney after her shock resignation in May. There was a knock-on in terms of recruitment and the Red Devils haven’t fully replaced what they have lost from the squad.
Everton, meanwhile, have strengthened considerably for the third summer in a row and could feasibly leapfrog United as the ‘best of the rest’ nipping at the heels of the top three.
Aston Villa, having narrowly survived on the final day last season – their first in the WSL, have also invested heavily and could surge up the table into the top half. Brighton showed last season that any side in the mid-table bracket can rise quite considerably with even a degree of consistency.
Tottenham, West Ham, Reading and Brighton are likely to be vying for places between 7th and 10th in what is typically a very fluid and unpredictable section of the table. Villa could also be included within that group, or indeed newly promoted Leicester if they can spring a surprise or two.
Time is likely to have run out for Birmingham. They have been on a downward trajectory since 2019 and arguably overachieved last season by narrowly avoiding the drop – their saving grace then was that there is only one relegation place and Bristol City were marginally worse.
Predicted 2021/22 WSL table
1. Chelsea (champions)
2. Manchester City (UWCL)
3. Arsenal (UWCL)
5. Manchester United
6. Aston Villa
8. West Ham
12. Birmingham (relegated)