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A Toni Duggan strike on 27 minutes separated the sides at the Academy Stadium, as the Blues produced a display encompassing true Manchester pride, grit and spirit in a difficult week for the city.
A sun-soaked and impassioned crowd of more than 1,000 turned out to cheer on the reigning champions in what has become one of the most eagerly-awaited fixtures in the Super League calendar. It did not disappoint.
Meetings between these two are always tightly-contested, feisty and entertaining, even before City were challenging for league title honours.
The rivalry took a back seat though as the league’s top two for 2016 and 2015 united in solidarity, both warming up in ‘We love Manchester’ t-shirts. A minute of silence was also observed in memory of those who suffered following Monday night’s tragic events.
After a tense opening few moments, City enjoyed an early spell of pressure with Nikita Parris instrumental on the wing, cutting inside several times and forcing Carly Telford or the visitors’ defence into action at the near post.
As the crowd applauded on 22 minutes to remember those who lost their lives at the Arena, Chelsea’s first chance arrived. Bethany England’s half-volley at the backpost was gathered at the second attempt by Karen Bardsley.
Heeding the warning, City regained their composure and opened the scoring five minutes later as Duggan, who bagged a hat-trick in the 3-0 victory at Bristol, turned to find space on the edge of the area and drilled an effort inside the post.
A respectfully subdued celebration followed, despite the significance of the strike.
Chelsea almost responded within minutes as Drew Spence bore down on goal but dragged her attempt well wide.
England went close again after the break but skewed over the bar from close range. She was then denied by Lucy Bronze, who reacted well to clear off the line.
As Chelsea pressed in search of a leveller, Bardsley produced an excellent stop to tip Spence’s strike around the post, while Millie Bright also volleyed wide.
City almost extended their lead against the run of play as Bronze embarked on a storming run and played in Parris, whose shot was pushed away by Telford.
The hosts thought their lead had been doubled when Megan Campbell launched in a trademark long throw-in, which ended up in the back of the net. Chelsea appeals followed with the linesman ruling no player had touched the ball on its way in.
Spence was thwarted by Bardsley once more, having scooped over the bar minutes before.
Substitute Georgia Stanway curled over and Parris missed the chance to add her name to the scoresheet late on with a weak effort but in the end, one goal would be enough to claim all three points.
City move to within a point of table-topping Liverpool with a game in hand over the Reds.
The Blues host Arsenal on Sunday 28 May (noon) before travelling to Sunderland (7pm, Wednesday 31 May) and then Liverpool on the final day of the season (3:30pm, Saturday 3 June).
Cushing made five changes from the side that romped to victory over Yeovil on Sunday.
Goalkeeper Bardsley returned to the starting line-up, shielded by a back four of Demi Stokes, Campbell, Houghton and Bronze.
The Blues thumped FA WSL 1 newcomers Yeovil at the Academy Stadium, ahead of home clashes against fellow title rivals Chelsea and Arsenal as the season begins its finale.
Jane Ross bagged a brace, while Jill Scott and Kosovare Asllani also found the net, ensuring Lucy Quinn’s first half strike proved a mere consolation for the visitors, who also had a penalty saved by Ellie Roebuck.
The Irish defender, who missed much of the 2016 campaign with injury, has been in red-hot form since her return with five assists in three games.