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Gareth Taylor: Man City boss hopes to trump Emma Hayes' Chelsea in tight WSL title race

Manchester City are the form team heading into the WSL run-in and manager Gareth Taylor holds hopes of beating closest rivals Chelsea to his first league title; watch Man City vs Everton live on Sky Sports Premier League on Saturday; kick-off 12pm

Gareth Taylor

Twists and turns are part and parcel of every title race. Some seasons have runaway winners, some spring a surprise, while others keep you guessing until the close in May, when a victor finally reveals themselves.

Gareth Taylor hopes this campaign can be the latter for Manchester City, who are currently locked on 34 points at the top of the Women's Super League with rivals Chelsea.

Winning the league is the aim at the start of every campaign for a club as ambitious as City, but a triumph that has been realised only once - back in 2016 under Nick Cushing's management.

Plenty of false dawns have followed. City are the team every neutral wants to watch, but the side that seems to consistently finish second, sometimes third-best.

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Why would this season be any different? Well, as Taylor sits down for an exclusive chat with Sky Sports before facing Everton at the Joie Stadium on Saturday, he does so with optimism, buoyed by a euphoric success over Chelsea a fortnight ago. No one result wins you a title but certain games carry higher risk than others - greater consequences, and greater reward.

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Highlights from the Women's Super League match between Chelsea and Manchester City

Across the desk from Taylor, City's men's manager, Pep Guardiola, knows that feeling all too well. Perceptive Pep, a serial achiever in his seven-and-a-half years at the Etihad, has often been the master of big-game mentality. Last season it won them a historic treble.

Pep's side face their own test of steel in the Manchester derby, live on Sky Sports, 24 hours after Taylor's City host Everton this weekend, and the intention will be the same: win.

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"I have lots of conversations with Pep," Taylor began, "and the main one, in terms of the success of last season, is about being defensively solid. The foundation has to be right. Nothing else works efficiently if that is not right.

"In previous seasons their class shone through and just about got them over the line, winning the Premier League, but to win the treble the way they did, it was built on solid defensive foundations.

"We're seeing the same from us now and we're going to continue with that focus because things can turn quickly. Defending should be as exciting as all the other stuff - to build you have to have a concrete platform.

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Highlights of the WSL match between Manchester City and Leicester

"At one point last season Pep was playing with four centre-backs, and at times this season we've done the same."

City are on the longest run of clean sheets by a WSL side this season, and have gone nearly five hours (in all competitions) without conceding a goal - in that time, they have faced Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs, all away from home.

They boast the most stubborn defensive unit in the division, and a goalkeeper who has the second-highest save ratio. Khiara Keating, incidentally February's WSL player of the month, also leads the charts for expected goals (xG) prevented.

"It's nice to score loads of goals but how you cope at the other end is just as important," Taylor, who spent portions of his playing career in defence, continues. "Games are never played on paper, so whether we're favourites to win or not, we have to earn the right.

Kerstin Casparij (left) and goalkeeper Khiara Keating (right) celebrate victory at Chelsea
Image: Defender Kerstin Casparij (left) and goalkeeper Khiara Keating (right) celebrate victory at Chelsea

"We have our women's team, both academies, Pep's team - all the teams in the group, we have a similar identity. We play the City way."

Taylor's core principles have remained steadfast in the three-and-a-half seasons he's been in charge at City, but there has been evolution this term - a transition towards more solid ground.

"In the past, it's been levelled at us about having a soft underbelly," he continues. "We've tweaked training slightly so we're more scenario-based, putting the players under real stress, which is more akin to match scenarios. We've got a great defensive record this season and it's partly because of that."

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Take a look at some of the best goals from Khadija 'Bunny' Shaw

He's right. City have become resilient and defiant, almost robotic. It's as if they feel impenetrable. You don't travel to London three times on the bounce and come away having not conceded a single goal without a real determination to see games through.

The shift is clear, but let us not forget that City comprehensively beat Chelsea 2-0 last March before falling to three defeats in their final six games. Inconsistencies have derailed them before - how about now?

Bunny Shaw has scored a league-high 14 goals this term, hitting the net every 70 minutes on average
Image: Bunny Shaw has scored or assisted in her last five WSL games, including a hat-trick in the reverse fixture against Everton

"Confidence and consistency are key. Consistent messages are so important but also having the bravery to be us. It's very simple what we do here, but it's hard to play against when we get it right.

"We do fly under the radar a bit. I just make sure our group know what we are doing is very good. We've got big gains to make, but we celebrate what we do. That has changed a lot in my time here: the small wins are so important."

There is something much less sexy about shutouts when compared with scoring a hatful of goals, although actually, this season, City have managed both. They can brag about the league's top scorer - Bunny Shaw - and most dangerous wide pairing - Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp - who have assisted seven goals between them.

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Chloe Kelly speaks to Sky Sports News' Anton Toloui about her incredible form for Manchester City

Kelly has been directly involved in four goals in her last three home appearances, which bodes less well for Everton, who have conceded the third-most goals from wide crosses in the league this season.

And so, it certainly feels like all the parts of a title-winning side are fixed in position, notwithstanding the Chelsea problem. WSL winners in the past four seasons, the Blues are insatiable and unlikely to surrender their crown easily - can they finally be trumped?

"I don't think Emma [Hayes] would mind, she's had enough success," Taylor says wearing a wry smile on his face, with just a hint of sincerity. "She would mind, of course she would, and look, she's been so successful, you can't argue.

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"Beating Chelsea was a big step for us. It was a big moment. Big results bring confidence. Sometimes that feeling lasts for 24 hours, sometimes longer, but it's not everlasting. Trying to harness that is important."

Talk of an overdue title feels inevitable. City have been starved of silverware much in the same way as every other WSL side who have bulked under the relentless weight of Chelsea's dominance.

Of course, there are other players in the title hunt, namely Arsenal, and posing this year's race as simply 'how do you stop Chelsea?' feels a little reductive, albeit one glance at the table reveals who poses the biggest threat.

"We have to keep edging closer to a trophy," Taylor says. "It starts to look more and more attractive the closer you get. We would be delighted with a trophy, any of the three. Trophies are hard. Football isn't fair but hopefully, we find a way to do it."

Objectively, a domestic treble is still within reach this season, and City are capable, should the stars align in their favour. Just one of the three on offer would be enough to satisfy Taylor.

Perhaps now would be the right time to ask: what would Pep do?

Watch Man City vs Everton live on Sky Sports Premier League on Saturday; kick-off 12pm.

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