Goals from Bethany England and Maren Mjelde in the final 12 minutes snatched all three points for the Londoners, after Caroline Weir had opened the scoring with a fantastic volleyed finish.
The defeat – a bitter pill to swallow for a battling defensive display – halted City’s five-game winning streak, marking just Chelsea’s second league victory over Nick Cushing’s side in 12 attempts.
Familiar foes, the two sides had locked horns on an astonishing 19 occasions since City turned professional in 2014 with Cushing’s side unbeaten in 13 of those meetings, including the last four.
Interestingly, league encounters for the past two campaigns had produced mirrored results, with two goalless draws at Kingsmeadow and a pair of 2-2 home ties. As has often been the case, the last fixture was decided by a solitary goal, as an injury time Magdalena Eriksson own-goal clinched a place in the FA Cup Final for City.
Chelsea – the only undefeated side in the Super League so far this campaign – dominated the opening 45 minutes, forcing Ellie Roebuck into numerous saves.
Ji So-Yun shot wide before testing the City shot-stopper for the first time, before England and Ramona Bachmann also drew the best of the 20-year-old.
Mjelde also struck the crossbar from distance, while the visitors struggled to carve out clear-cut chances at the other end.
The second half proved a more even affair. Chelsea once again started the brighter with the hosts hitting the woodwork once again, as Ji left Roebuck stranded with a low effort, but it was City who broke the deadline just before the hour with a goal of real quality.
Keira Walsh was the architect, floating a perfect delivery into Weir’s path and the Scotland international executed the perfect technique to guide the ball past Ann-Katrin Berger on the volley for her 15th goal for the Club.
Desperate for a leveller, Chelsea upped the ante, unleashing wave after wave of pressure – but the home side were unable to penetrate a resolute City defence. Captain Steph Houghton led by example, launching herself at every shot to block brilliantly, while Roebuck continued to thwart all that came her way, including a curling Bachmann effort which seemed destined for the top corner.
The hosts’ pressure finally told on 79 minutes, as England converted a rebound from close range, after Roebuck had denied Ji’s powerful effort.
Within three minutes, the home side had turned the game on its head, as England drilled a cross back in from Roebuck’s punched clearance, as Mjelde diverted the ball across the line at the near post.
Substitute Georgia Stanway came closest to finding a late equaliser but a deflection took the sting out of her driven strike – and Chelsea hung on for the victory.
Cushing made one change from the side that defeated Liverpool last time out, as Scott was recalled to the starting XI in place of Laura Coombs.
What it means
City stay third in the Super League table, while Chelsea move top – if only temporarily, ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Reading later in the day.
City wrap up a memorable 2019 with a home league clash against Brighton and Hove Albion on Sunday 15 December at 2pm.
Tickets for all home games are available online or at the Etihad Stadium Ticket Office.