Women's Super League: Can Chelsea again finish top in 'unpredictable' competition?

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The WSL 1 stories to watch in 2016

The Women's Super League One season kicks off this week, with Chelsea hoping to retain the title they secured in dramatic fashion 170 days ago.

For the second successive year, the top-flight crown was decided on the final day in 2015 - Emma Hayes' side completing the league and FA Cup double by edging out Manchester City.

But could 2016 possibly throw up even more drama? Arsenal have strengthened and the minnows of the league are looking at Leicester City's exploits in the men's Premier League with renewed optimism that anything is possible.

BBC Sport looks at what is driving each club as they prepare for the new campaign.

Listen: 'The most unpredictable WSL ever'

Chelsea and Man City building success

Chelsea winger Gemma Davison says the feeling of being the hunted in 2016 is a welcome one for a team that has strengthened since last season.

"Everyone wants to defend the title, but when you achieve something and win things people want to beat you," she said. "But they can also fear you.

"I love that feeling, the feeling of teams wanting to beat you means you are strong and it's something to enjoy."

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Highlights: Chelsea Ladies 4-0 Sunderland Ladies

England international Karen Carney is the highest-profile Chelsea arrival and adds to an already impressive forward line that includes three England attackers and FA Cup match-winner Ji So-Yun.

"We are continuing to build as we did last season and there is definitely more depth to take us to another level," added Davison. "We want to compete in everything.

"It's a great league and no-one can really predict how it will go."

Manchester City have been a growing force in the top flight, marking their induction to WSL by clinching the Continental Cup in 2014 and then going on to claim a Champions League spot as league runners-up last season.

City and England captain Steph Houghton says it is an "exciting" place to be, and boss Nick Cushing has brought in Sweden striker Kosovare Asllani from Paris St-Germain and prolific Scotland forward Jane Ross.

"We want to be successful. There is a lot of pressure on us, but it is a good pressure to allow us to go and perform," said Houghton.

"The individuals in this side strive in these circumstances and situations.

"Everybody will look at us, we are a big club with a lot of international players here and we have a great set-up that everyone is trying to emulate now."

Will the 'Leicester City' of the WSL please stand up

Leicester City's exploits in the Premier League, going from relegation escape artists one season to frontrunners the next, resonates with the little-fancied clubs in the women's game.

Sunderland Ladies had already gone a long way to rewriting the expectations of sides outside the established guard last season by topping the league for a few weeks after winning promotion from the second tier.

Reading came up as last term's WSL 2 champions and forward Amber Stobbs says they will be keen to follow the examples of the Foxes and Lady Black Cats.

"Hey, we can be the new Leicester," grinned Stobbs. "Any hope in sport is good hope. It's an inspiration.

"Seeing a club do what Sunderland did makes you believe what is possible. It showed that the league is not set in its ways. You can challenge, it's not that you are new and will stay at the bottom."

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Doncaster striker Natasha Dowie, a WSL 1 title and FA Cup winner with Liverpool, echoed Stubbs' sentiment.

"Teams learned last year not to underestimate sides," she said. "Look at the men's Premier League with Leicester City, who would have thought?"

Sunderland boss Carlton Fairweather, a member of Wimbledon's infamous Crazy Gang that rose through the English football ranks and won the 1988 FA Cup final against Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool, knows well the power of self-belief.

"Look at the Leicester side, they haven't spent as much money as the big 10 teams in the Premier League and they are competing," he said. "It shows you what a bit of togetherness and having individuals that are willing to learn and who want to improve can achieve."

'It's a ruthless league'

Arsenal midfielder Jordan Nobbs can pin-point the moment the WSL 1 title began to slip for the Gunners' grasp last year - a 1-1 draw just six games into the season against a Bristol side that would eventually get relegated.

With only 16 league matches to play, the margin for error is small.

For the second successive year, the title was decided on the final day and Arsenal were not in the running.

"Look at the season before when Liverpool went from third to first on the last weekend - that does not really happen," said Nobbs. "One game like that shows how ruthless it is and that's what makes it exciting and why fans get excited - you don't know what's going to happen."

"There are not many games in our league. When you lose one game it can knock you from first to third - every game is crucial."

Arsenal Ladies celebrate their 2015 Continental Cup triumph

And yet Arsenal were still able to add to their trophy cabinet last season with a Continental Cup triumph that Nobbs says signified the end of a disappointing season and marked new hope for a better 2016.

"To say we won the Continental Cup at the end a bit of a rollercoaster of season was a good turning point for us to put that behind us and get us thinking about winning some more trophies," she said.

The Continental Cup triumph - their first piece of silverware under Spanish boss Pedro Martinez Losa - inflicted a second major final defeat on Notts County in 2015, with the Magpies also losing the 2015 Women's FA Cup decider.

Notts' England international goalkeeper Carly Telford says the Meadow Lane club is determined "to go one better".

She added: "Of course you want to make progress from having an empty cookie jar to starting to fill it."

Clean slates and a refreshing outlook

It has been all change at Liverpool Ladies.

Two-time title-winning manager Matt Beard has left and gone are a host of players, including England's most-capped international Fara Williams, Lionesses striker Dowie and Nigeria forward Asisat Oshoala.

In their place are a number of new arrivals - among them England defender Alex Greenwood - as well as new boss Scott Rodgers, who was promoted from assistant manager.

For a side that meekly relinquished their title last season, having eventually finishing second from bottom, defender Satara Murray says a fresh feeling at the Reds is a welcome one.

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Women's Super League's top 10 transfers

"Sometimes it's good to have new faces in the team," she said. "With nine new signings and a new manager, I hope that will allow us to be a whole different team.

"As a team we have to prove people wrong and show that we have not gone anywhere. We had one bad season - it happens.

"It now has to be a better year. Liverpool were champions in 2013 and 2014 and that meant we had a big target on our back in 2015. This year, not having that is a nice thing."

While Liverpool have been the busiest club in the transfer market, Birmingham City Ladies have been among the least active, bringing in Corina Schroder from Liverpool while Hall of Fame player Carney and goalkeeper Becky Spencer moved to Chelsea.

Blues manager David Parker admits trying to compete pound-for-pound with the rich is beyond them and says it is "essential" the club produce home-grown talent.

Birmingham vice-captain Kerys Harrop says the policy is "refreshing".

"We have to be realistic, we don't have the budget to go and buy world-class international players and it is nice to think that we are using our own resources, our own youngsters coming through the system," she said.

"It is a shame other clubs aren't doing that and it is going more like the men's game. I'm proud that we are staying true to our roots."

Coverage

Across WSL 1 and WSL 2, there will be a total of 16 commentaries live on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra this season, starting with Manchester City's first home game against Notts County on Wednesday, 23 March.

Each programme will feature news and interviews from the women's game, followed by build-up and commentary of the featured match. And, for the first time this season, the BBC will also be publishing a Women's Super League podcast.

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