FA Women’s Super League – [Mid]Week 17 Review

Arsenal back in the Champions’ League hunt with victory over United; Chelsea retain top spot beating Everton; City move to ten consecutive league victories at the expense of relegation threatened Bristol City; Brighton get fourth win on the spin at Aston Villa; West Ham and Birmingham draw at Victoria Road. Store away that red nose for another year, here’s your week 17 WSL summary…

Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United

Adding value: Lotte Wubben-Moy led a patched up back four AND headed in Arsenal’s second goal…

“Our aim is always to be in the upper echelon of European football and English football. [Arsenal] is an attractive club, it is a club that people want to come to. I think the higher that we play and being on the stage in Europe makes it all the more attractive from that perspective. We believe in what we are doing, and we will continue to be there and continue to fight for those positions.”

Joe Montemurro, Manager, Arsenal, via fawslfulltime.co.uk

They ended the match with ten players, but Arsenal reignited their challenge for the last available Champions League berth on Friday night, edging closer to Manchester United with victory over their nearest rivals at Meadow Park.

Joe Montemurro’s side – who also had to adjust without injured, ever-present defender Leah Williamson – are now just three points behind the Red Devils in the table with a game in hand and a better goal differential.

The Gunners were in front early. Caitlin Foord and Vivianne Miedema pressed Martha Harris into an error on the right touchline and set the Australian on her way. She burst between a couple of defenders and played Jill Roord into the penalty area. Roord could see Beth Mead arriving but her cross never got there, pinging off defender Millie Turner and into the net.

United didn’t lose their heads and started to create chances. Lauren James rode a robust challenge and found Christen Press in space eight yards from goal. The American cut inside her marker but couldn’t muster the power on her shot to beat Manuela Zinsberger.

Ona Batlle and Jackie Gronen combined on the left to engineer a great shooting opportunity for James on the edge of the penalty box, but she blazed her effort over the cross bar.

Into the second half and while the match continued to move fluidly from end to end both defences were denying clear cut chances, restricting their opponents to largely wasteful distance strikes.

Mead picked up the ball 20 yards out from a throw on the right, danced through two challenges but drilled her shot past Mary Earps’ right-hand post.

Arsenal extended their lead in the 51st minute from a corner on the left. Irish full-back Katie McCabe drove the ball to the far post and Lotte Wubben-Moy rose highest to power her header past Earps.

Seemingly well-set heading into the final half hour of the game, Gunners fans would probably have had their head in their hands asking ‘why?’ when Mead scythed down Lucy Staniforth in midfield and received a second yellow card from referee Amy Fearn.  Staniforth was being closed by Kim Little so there was no need to even make the challenge.

Casey Stoney’s side looked to up their levels again, but the hosts retreated into an ‘everyone behind the ball’ strategy that put the onus on United to pick their way through a nine-strong wall of outfield players. Katie Zelem did find herself in a pocket of space inside the Arsenal penalty area, but snatched at her half volley and it soared out of the ground.

“They were clinical with their chances, we weren’t in ours. We concede a poor goal and then set pieces again have done us. Goals change games and I think we had two really good chances in the first half and we didn’t take them. It was definitely both boxes where it was won and lost.”

Casey Stoney, Manager, Manchester United, via fawslfulltime.co.uk

To be honest the race for third has never been of particular interest to this correspondent. Watching Premier League football, for example, the winners mostly run away with the title and then the media needs to make a big deal of the also-rans for a few weeks towards the back end of the season. Who finishes second, etc.? Who cares? I care more about who gets promoted from the level below to be honest…

So, my enthusiasm for whether Arsenal or Manchester United get a European berth is in limited supply. But it is there. Why? Well, this year it’s because after UEFA extended the number of champions league spots available to three the WSL is finally a bona fide four-horse race to get them – which is a credit to United whichever way it goes. Even with this victory for Arsenal it’s by no means decided. There’s plenty of football left to be played and both sides have been prone to off-days.

For now, it’s back in Arsenal’s hands; match United’s results to the end of the campaign and they’re there. The clubs have eerily similar fixtures schedules to the end of the season. Both have completed their schedule against the other top sides; both play in form Brighton; both take on best-of-the-rest Everton, and both get another look at West Ham, Spurs and Bristol City.

All of which means that Arsenal’s final league match in May, when they host Aston Villa, could have everything on it. Either that or it’ll be who blinks first…

Everton 0-3 Chelsea

From zero to hero: Melanie Leupolz missed a penalty but intrinsic German productivity spurred her on to score Chelsea’s third…

“My team really impressed me. To come up here after a tiring away trip and start the way we started the game and then maintain that was impressive. To be the best you have to be extremely clinical. If we were at our best we would have been 4-0 up at half-time and that’s a fact. We had the situations to create that and if we were the best team we would have won by a bigger margin with the number of chances we get. Everybody who knows me knows I value defending and clean sheets too so if we were to win the game 3-1, I’d have been gutted.”

Emma Hayes, Manager, Chelsea, via chelseafc.com

Leaders Chelsea missed an early penalty but went on to beat Everton with a dominant performance at Walton Hall Park.

Around sixty seconds had been played when Megan Finnigan inadvertently handled Fran Kirby’s cross.  Midfielder Melanie Leupolz stepped forward and chose to go left, but struck her penalty at just the right height and just the right velocity for stand-in keeper Tinja-Riikka Korpela to push it round the post.

Undeterred, the Blues would go ahead inside 15 minutes. Ji So-yun found Sam Kerr on the halfway line and the striker whipped a first time ‘round-the-corner’ through to Fran Kirby who ran away from three defenders and slotted with her left foot.

With the hosts reeling and struggling to keep possession Chelsea pushed on for a second. Kirby drove just wide from the edge of the ‘D’ and then Pernille Harder was denied at close range by Korpela.

Everton eventually found their feet in the second half and started to create some chances of their own.  Lucy Graham broke down the left and fed Claire Emslie. The Scot cut inside a defender and hit a fierce, curling drive that Ann-Katrin Berger acrobatically pawed away from danger.

Erin Cuthbert, Kerr and Harder combined cleverly to put Kirby in on goal but Korpela stood up well and saved with her legs.

The next goal was always going to be crucial and it went the champions’ way, on the hour, via a trademark lightning quick transition from defence to attack. Right back Niamh Charles played Kerr into acres of space down the wing, the Australian crossed to Kirby, who kept her head under pressure, teed up Harder and the Danish forward slid the ball through the keeper’s legs.

In the 79th minute Chelsea got their third. Millie Bright recycled an Everton clearance, the ball was crossed in behind the Toffees’ back line and Harder arrived, looping her header over Korpela. Incredibly the keeper scrambled back and clawed it off the goal line only to find Leupolz following up to atone for her earlier penalty miss.

Last week Chelsea secured the first of four trophies that they are contesting, winning the League Cup by a six goal margin against Bristol City. In that match, they rested Ji and Harder. For a cup final. And here they were sliding back in the starting eleven and no one looking like they’d skipped a beat.

One thing that Emma Hayes didn’t alter from last weekend was the deadly striking duo of Kerr and Kirby who now have 24 goals and 13 assists between them in the Women’s Super League. Their accuracy, speed of thought and movement off the ball are surely as good as anything you’ll see across Europe right now. And all those facets will need to stay tip-top. The Blues head into the ‘business end’ of the Champions’ League this week with a tough quarter final draw against last season’s runners-up Wolfsburg. Both ties are scheduled to be played at the Szusza Ferenc Stadion in Budapest.

“Chelsea are clinical when you give them chances. I think the three goals were preventable. If you’re going to take points against the best teams, then you’ve got to stay in the game. And you only stay in the game by preventing sloppy goals – and we didn’t do that. We need to keep working to close the gap. We’re determined as a group of staff and the players are determined, too. Tonight, I think we showed loads of really good stuff but, ultimately, it was sloppy goals and Chelsea’s quality which beat us.”

Willie Kirk, Manager, Everton, via Evertonfc.com

For Everton, well they have improved again this year under manager Willie Kirk, but haven’t really stood up well against the top clubs – a grittier 0-1 defeat last week to Manchester City notwithstanding.

Their form overall has picked up over the last six fixtures, though, and recent wins at Spurs and Birmingham City would have boosted morale. They’re sat in fifth place in the table and, objectively, they look like the fifth best side in the division.

The team has some quality players but the squad overall lacks the sort of depth required to push for Champions League places through injury issues and tactical rotation.

Next on the fixtures calendar they visit the People’s Pension stadium to take on bang-in-form Brighton. Perhaps it won’t a fixture that readily catches the attention of the majority – it clashes with the North London derby that weekend. But both of these teams are on the up so we’re really looking forward to it at D2B Towers.

Bristol City 0-3 Manchester City

Ten wins in a row: “There’ll always be areas we can improve on,” says Gareth Taylor. Quite right.

“We’re never satisfied, we always want to improve, we always want to work hard on the training pitches, these girls work tremendously hard. To get ourselves to this point where we are in the season with five games to go, ten games on the bounce, it’s superb and we want to keep it going. Clean sheets and a 3-0 away victory is great but there’ll always be areas we can improve on, both as individuals and certainly as a team.”

Gareth Taylor, Manager, Manchester City, via mancity.com

Manchester City remain two points behind leaders Chelsea after securing a comprehensive victory at Twerton Park, taking their winning run in the league to ten games.

They took the lead in the 12th minute. Sam Mewis played Chloe Kelly into space down the right, the winger’s low cross found its way to the edge of the six-yard box where Caroline Weir was arriving to finish – right footed – for her seventh goal of the campaign.

Ellen White’s diving header from another Kelly delivery whisked past the upright, but she put her side 2-0 up on the half hour. Alex Greenwood played Lauren Hemp into space down the left, the winger’s low cross found its way to White who was haring in behind the Vixens’ back line and the City striker let the ball run across her and half-volleyed inside the keeper’s left-hand post.

Bristol City keeper Sophie Baggaley would make some good stops to keep the score respectable, denying Hemp, Mewis and White.

But the ladies in sky blue carved out their 54th goal of the season just before the end when Weir robbed a defender and played in Janine Beckie. Beckie’s attempt looped up off Baggeley’s foot and Sam Mewis was in the right place to loop her header over both keeper and defender on the goal line.

Gareth Taylor’s side have been in sensational form since the turn of the year. But with the resumption of the Champions League knock-out stages in March they are now caught in the vortex of two games per week, so squad depth in terms of fitness and quality becomes key. 

European ties with Barcelona sandwich a tricky looking league encounter with Reading. Spurs and Chelsea sit spectre-like on the distant horizon. On paper if any club can make it work, though, it should be Manchester City with an army of talent that is playing at the peak of its powers. The trouble is, of course, football’s not played on paper…

“Overall, I didn’t think we got much tonight in the way of decisions, which is frustrating, but I am really pleased with the second half. I have said that when we play against the big teams like Man City and Chelsea that we need to shift the mind-set, because tonight we have proved that we can play, and we have created a few great chances. I can see it’s beginning to change, and we have proved that we can stop these top teams from playing but we need to do it more consistently. As long as we stay positive then I am confident we can stay in this division.”

Matt Beard, Interim Manager, Bristol City, via bcfc.co.uk

It’s been a tough week for Bristol City who squared up to the country’s best two teams in a four day period and were roundly beaten by both.

They find themselves back in the relegation zone on goal difference – which is -19 worse than Villa and -29 worse than Birmingham and West Ham. So, it’s fair to say, points on the board will be key to their survival.

Next up is a visit to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. The teams drew 2-2 earlier in the season at Twerton Park but Spurs have been off colour in recent matches. Last weekend they snapped a four-game losing streak when they ground out a 0-0 draw at Reading.  The Vixens, meanwhile have picked up a couple of wins since the end of January. On the face of it, the teams seem well matched at a crucial moment of the season…

West Ham United 2-2 Birmingham City

“Yeeeeahhh! Have we got time for a winner?” Nope. Birmingham loan signing Ruby Mace celebrates equalising at the death.

“They get one right at the death, and I said to the girls if that’s the other way round, we’d be celebrating like Birmingham are. That’s why you play football and you’ve got to play right until the very end, we only played for 94 minutes tonight and we needed to play for 95. It’s a big point for us when you look at the bigger picture and we need to keep clicking over and getting points. Tonight’s result takes us off the bottom of the table, which is a positive. The second half display was what you want as a manager, it’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t hold on at the end.”

Olli Harder, Manager, West Ham United, via whufc.com

West Ham remain winless at home after throwing two points away in the final seconds of stoppage time against Birmingham. Loanee central defender Ruby Mace equalised for the Blues in the 94th minute, even though they had barely troubled the Hammers’ keeper after going 2-1 down midway through the second half.

It had been a different story during the first 45 minutes where the visitors looked stronger, more aggressive and carried more goal threat than their opposition.

Birmingham took a deserved lead in the 9th minute from a corner on the right. Everyone shaped up for the delivery to go into a crowded six-yard box; instead it was played to Claudia Walker on the edge of the penalty area. Her powerful shot was blocked but midfielder Emily Murphy made no mistake with the rebound, beautifully controlling her finish on the half-volley. It was her first goal since making a loan switch from Chelsea.

Four minutes later, Blues midfielder Ruesha Littlejohn nearly made life a whole lot worse for her former club driving just over the bar from distance.

There was a Pinter-esque pause to patch up Walker and Hammers’ captain Gilly Flaherty who had clashed heads (and earlier had a few choice words). Seven minutes of first half stoppage time ended up being played during which time Murphy made a terrific driving run through the home defence; she got the final ball wrong but a mix up between Laura Vetterlein and Grace Fisk presented Jamie-Lee Napier with a shooting opportunity. The Scot should, perhaps, have done better than lifting her effort over the bar.

It had become exactly the kind of match an away side fighting for their lives would want: early lead, very scrappy, and a fussy ref breaking up the flow of game.

But that was to change straight after the interval. Birmingham began the half with ten players – Walker was being re-bandaged after receiving stitches for her head wound. Before she got back on the field it was 1-1.

Flaherty hit a hopeful ball into the box from out on the right touchline. Keeper Hannah Hampton came for it, fumbled it and Emily van Egmond dinked the ball into an unguarded net. It was a bad one to concede and a wave of anxiety suddenly rippled through Carla Ward’s side.

Buoyed by their good start to the second period, meanwhile, West Ham got on the front foot. Centre forward Martha Thomas ran in behind the Blues back line three times in a six minute spell but fired two shots straight at the keeper; the other she drove across the face of goal with no one gambling on it. She puts in the miles, Thomas, but here’s a striker that can’t buy a goal at the moment.

The hosts finally got their noses in front in the 73rd minute. The Claret and Blues worked the ball down the right and then to Van Egmond in the ‘D’. The Australian spotted Svitkova to her left, teed it up and the Czech hammered left-footed beyond Hampton and in off the upright.

The match coughed and spluttered towards its conclusion with West Ham first choosing to take the ball to the corner flag in about the 84th minute. Olli Harder threw on defenders Maz Pacheco and Hawa Cissoko in the final moments, presumably to close out the game, although I could have sworn that I saw Cissoko take Thomas’s centre forward role.

And suddenly it was 2-2.

Birmingham, by now entirely in ‘headless chicken’ mode, won a throw on the right. Christie Murray grabbed the ball and her left foot appeared to enter the field of play before she let go – it was clearly a foul throw. The officials failed to spot it so on we went. A moment of pinball during which there was a handball shout against Murray and finally the ball broke into the West Ham penalty area where Svitkova strong armed Murray but skewed her clearance to Mayling out on the wing. She wrapped her foot around the ball and whipped in the cross of the night for Mace stood in ‘nosebleed central’ at the back post who volleyed home emphatically. It was an absurdly wonderful goal to top off a largely awful affair.

And that was pretty much the last kick of the match. Birmingham deserved their equaliser if only because it prevented either side from winning.

For a while now we’ve tried to convince ourselves at D2B that there’s more to West Ham and Birmingham than what we’ve being seeing – that’s why we tuned in to this one. West Ham have let a few key players go, loan spells (like Rachel Daly’s) ended; they sacked their manager. The Blues, meanwhile, have had injury issues, a number of home games postponed and then had to move to St. George’s Park. Now it looks like they have been docked points on a lost fixture with Spurs for breaking league rules. [FA Statement below this article – Ed.].

But having got to the end of this contest, and it really was hard work (don’t even get me started on the awful match commentator on FA Player*), maybe the simple explanation is that they really are two of the worst teams in the division.

Granted there was a lot at stake, and neither side lacked effort – well West Ham did in the first half, actually. But there was very little quality on display for WSL fare. It was a physical, frenetic mess, no one could get their foot on the ball, the passing was error-strewn and quite a few players seemed to be hell-bent on finishing the match with a bandage around their head.

“It was a huge moment in our season. It was important not to lose the game and for Ruby to put the ball in the back of the net at that moment, well my heart is still racing now. Honestly, I’m delighted, we showed great character at the end because we weren’t at our best in the second-half. The message was to relax and be patient. It was frantic, we wanted them to relax and settle a bit. The last five minutes we threw the kitchen sink at them and got the goal that I think we deserved and on the balance of things, it was probably a fair point.”

Carla Ward, Manager, Birmingham City, via bcfc.com

The commentator I endured kept banging on about Claudia Walker as Birmingham’s top scorer. It’s factually correct, I get it, and honestly what’s not to like about Walker? She’s quick, she’s a grafter, she’s brave (see above) and she always gives defenders aggravation, but the ‘purple patch’ has long since passed.  She hasn’t scored in the WSL since the 14th November and missed the last penalty she took. As a lone striker, it doesn’t look like it’s working that well. Perhaps chucking another body up front alongside her might help?

Birmingham’s last three goals, incidentally, have all been scored by loan signings (Napier, Murphy, Mace). There’s no issue with that, they all count, but quite what they’re going to do next season should they avoid the drop, is anyone’s guess. Didn’t Carla Ward used to manage Katie Wilkinson at Sheffield United? And didn’t Wilkinson come thorough at Birmingham? She’s doing pretty well in front of goal this year in the Championship – and heading into her peak years. Could be a re-match made in heaven…

West Ham manager Olli Harder, meanwhile, gives the impression that despite all the bad results he believes the situation isn’t as troubling as everyone else does – a penny for young CEO Jack Sullivan’s thoughts. Some of the things that his players are doing are good things, the right things. The problem is, of course, none of these things are leading to wins. And this match should have ended his winless run.

That it didn’t is a problem. Mind-set, fitness, game management, a bit of bad luck – you choose. The Hammers are not prolific – a quarter of their goals came in one match, for instance. They also don’t do clean sheets; only one to date in fact which (funnily enough) came in the same match that they racked up a quarter of their goals!

In the first half West Ham looked like the worst team in the WSL. In the second half – mercifully for the Hammers’ boss – Birmingham did.

During pre-season D2B predicted a season of struggle for Birmingham, while looking a bit more hopefully on West Ham’s prospects. Once we got a couple of months into the campaign we really didn’t think either of these sides would end up looking like serious relegation contenders. Well, they do now and, to compound matters, Bristol City have recently figured out how to win the odd game of football. Aston Villa are also well and truly in the doo-doo so hold on to your bobble hats everyone, the basement battle could end up going to the wire…

(*note to self: should have gone with BBC Radio London.)

“The Football Association can confirm that an Independent Tribunal has determined that Birmingham City’s unfulfilled fixture against Tottenham Hotspur in The FA WSL on 10 January 2021 will not be replayed and three points will be awarded to Tottenham Hotspur. The tribunal found that Birmingham breached competition rule 11.3.18, which outlines ‘the failure to fulfil an engagement. As a result, Tottenham Hotspur have been awarded the victory.”

FA Statement, Thursday 18th March

Aston Villa 0-2 Brighton & Hove Albion

When leapfrog goes wrong. Inessa Kaagman and Aileen Whelan living the dream at Brighton. (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

“When you win, you start to gain more belief. We want to keep looking up and keep improving, keep getting better and ultimately, try and beat those teams who we are up against, whoever they are. I think that while we are moving, everybody else is moving. Everybody strives on being better game-on-game, year-on-year and we are no different. We are not there. We are not going to win the league, we are not going to win the Champions League, the ambition is for this club to be a top four club and my ambition is to win the league year-on-year if we can.”

Hope Powell, Manager, Brighton, via fawslfulltime.co.uk (pre-match)

Brighton moved into the top half of the WSL table with their fourth consecutive league win, this one a hard-fought success at struggling Aston Villa. In terms of points secured Hope Powell’s side can point to form that’s as good as anyone in the division since the beginning of February.

Both teams began the match positively, trading opportunities. Maya Le Tissier’s drive from 20 yards was brilliant tipped over the bar by Villa keeper Lisa Weiß. At the other end Chloe Arthur robbed a defender inside the penalty area but found Megan Walsh well placed to deal with her effort on goal.

The visitors took the lead halfway through the first period. Megan Connolly’s drive from the edge of the box was too hot for Weiß to hold on to and Aileen Whelan was first to the scraps, scoring her fourth league goal of the season.

Villa, who are nothing if not resolute, stayed in the game. Shania Hayles’ shot on the turn forced a good save out of Walsh, low to her left.

The second half was more of the same: lots of half chances, nothing clear cut. Manchester City loanee Lee Geum-min headed Inessa Kaagman’s free-kick over the Villa bar. Hayles got herself a yard of space on the edge of the box but drilled wide.

The killer goal came with less than ten minutes left on the clock. Weiß needlessly hauled down substitute Kayleigh Green in the penalty area and referee Rebecca Welch had a straightforward decision to make.

Kaagman only needed a short run up, blasting the ball plumb down the middle.

Putting twenty points on the board has always been more than enough to ensure WSL survival. The Seagulls moved on to 21 with this win. It might seem ridiculous to be talking about survival with an in-form, mid-table club like Brighton but this was the reality of their world just six weeks ago when they were, frankly, walloped at Bristol City.

They’ve picked up 57% of their points this season in the last four matches. Talk about a reaction. We didn’t see it coming here at D2B. We’re not certain anyone did.  Blimey, could Hope Powell and her backroom staff honestly say they did?

“Result-wise, a hard one to take. The performance was a huge step in the right direction again. As has been the case so far this season, there have been plenty of positives to take from games and into the next. My biggest takeaway is that we’re going in the right direction. They’re now understanding what it takes to be successful at this level and to embrace the situation that we’re in. I have no doubt they’re going to come through these uncomfortable experiences.”

Marcus Bignot, Manager, Aston Villa, via avfc.co.uk

For Villa, this may feel like another opportunity wasted. A confident Brighton side was always going to present a challenge to beat, but there was surely a point up for grabs here. They’re finding goals hard to come by and Mana Iwabuchi won’t be able to smash in a ‘worldie’ every week.

Granted they’ve played three of the top four in recent weeks and have fallen foul of some postponements but they need more goal threat. (Look at what Ebony Salmon has been able to conjure with not much around her in Bristol).

One goal in their previous five tells a story. Go back to the 23rd January and Iwabuchi dragged Villa kicking and screaming to a 2-2 draw with Reading in the snow.

This match pivoted around who could be more clinical when the opportunities came along.  Villa got three shots on target in this match from 15 attempts (Brighton seven in 12).  Players like Stine Larsen and Diana Silva, who looked like they could add something at the start of the season, have just a goal each.  Midfieder Ramona Petzelberger is top scorer with three but has gone off the boil recently.  

Manager Marcus Bignot understands that his team need to work hard, stay organised and make sure that they are much tougher to beat to remain in the WSL. In fairness they looked like that team against Brighton: but lost. The next challenge is finding a way to put the ball in the net again. If they can’t figure that out, well, praying for other results to go their way is probably their best bet…

==

Last year, we charted on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link above or our Links page, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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