FA Women’s Super League – Week 20 Review

It was ‘draws galore’ for teams at the bottom of the WSL this week, which means it’s ‘as you were’ for Bristol City, Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Ham… Meanwhile, Ella Toone was in sparkling form for Manchester United as they walloped Spurs 4-1; and Arsenal beat Brighton at Meadow Park courtesy of a Jordan Nobbs brace to stay ahead of the Red Devils for that final Champions League spot. Give that barbeque a clean people, the sun’s finally out: oh, and it’s week 20 of the Women’s Super League…

Aston Villa 2-2 Bristol City

That 95th Minute Feeling: Matt Beard’s Bristol City are still in there fighting…

“I think it was a game of two halves, they won the first half, we won the second half. The players deserve an enormous amount of credit for getting us back in the game and getting a point in the end. The first half was probably the most disappointed that I have been since I have been here because we didn’t do the basics of the game, the fundamentals, which is frustrating. To me, in the first half, it just looked like they wanted it more and when you are in a relegation battle, you can’t allow that to happen.”

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

Bristol City snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat with a 95th minute equaliser at Aston Villa in a crucial ‘battle of the basement’ clash at Banks’ Stadium.

They had substitutes to thank for both goals after the starting eleven had failed to get anything going from an attacking perspective.

Villa took a 3rd minute lead when Shania Hayles’ close range header was saved by Sophie Baggaley but ricocheted off defender Meaghan Sargeant and into the net.

The hosts went on to completely dominate the opening hour of the match – during which time, Stine Larsen headed Olivia McLoughlin’s right wing cross inches wide of the target.

Natalie Haigh was able to extend Villa’s lead in the 35th minute, though. Elisha N’Dow hung up a ball from deep and the centre back arrived in the six-yard box to loop her header over the City keeper.

Into the second period and the Villans continued to ramp up the pressure on the league’s bottom side. Young left back Freya Gregory hit a fierce, swerving drive that Baggaley acrobatically tipped around the post at full stretch.

Chloe did manage to beat the Vixens’ keeper with a rasping drive from 25-yards, but saw it rattle off the cross bar.

City interim boss Matt Beard decided he needed to change things up with 72 minutes on the clock. Faye Bryson and Abi Harrison were thrown into the game and it paid dividends within two minutes. Jemma Purfield’s low cross from the left was helped on by Harrison, and Bryson arrived just inside the penalty area to middle a half-volley off her left foot that flew into the top corner.

With the pattern of the match shifting Villa decided ball retention was the way to manage the game to a successful result.

But as the clock was ticking through seven minutes of stoppage time, Haigh gave up a cheap foul on Ebony Salmon and substitute Ella Mastrantonio stepped forward to clip a 40-yard free-kick into the box that everyone missed – including keeper Lisa Weiß.

“It’s obviously frustrating because I feel like we controlled the game, especially in the first half. We came out the blocks well in the second half but we just needed to take our chances and put the game to bed earlier. In games like this, momentum takes over. They gained momentum from their first goal and then we dropped off and allowed them time and space to get back into the game, which is not what we’re about.”

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

With Villa’s goal difference significantly better than Bristol City’s it was probably more important that they didn’t lose – but it’s got to smart, being two goals up and playing so much better than their opponent for long spells, only to see three points melt away to one.

For Bristol City, well they’re still fighting for their lives but time is running out. They have one fewer game to play than all their rivals and take on Manchester United next weekend. Defeat in that match will effectively mean it’s all over for them as a WSL side, IF Villa have managed to win the Second City derby which takes place this coming Wednesday…

Manchester United 4-1 Tottenham Hotspur

Ella Toone: A breakthrough WSL season for the young midfielder…

“We conceded a goal that we’ll be disappointed with but I thought we were dominant. I thought it was one of our best performances. [Finishing third is] not in our hands anymore and with the run-in of games that we’ve got, I think it’s very much in Arsenal’s favour. All we can do is try and win the games we’ve got left and keep putting the pressure on. We are getting closer but it’s disappointing that it’s not in our hands. I can’t be any more proud, and I can’t fault my team’s effort this season.”

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

Manchester United ended up making light work of a Spurs side that started with intent but couldn’t seize the early initiative.

The hosts, meanwhile created chance after chance. Ella Toone played Christen Press in behind the Tottenham defence in the opening moments but the American’s tame shot was comfortable for Becky Spencer.

It was Toone herself that got the scoring started inside ten minutes, arriving in the penalty area to slot from 12-yards after Kirsty Hanson had beaten Ashleigh Neville for pace down the left and cut back from the by-line.

Toone turned provider for Christen Press’s fourth league goal of the campaign, recycling a half cleared corner and providing a perfect ball to the edge of the six-yard box that the striker neatly nodded inside Spencer’s left-hand post.

Hanson set up number three just after the half-hour mark, tormenting Neville again and driving in a cross that Toone miscued at the first bite but Sigsworth lashed into the net at the second.

Any sage words that Spurs boss Rehanne Skinner may have had for her players at half time were rendered largely irrelevant three minutes into the second period when Alanna Kennedy hauled down Lucy Staniforth in the penalty box. Toone assumed responsibility and sent Spencer the wrong way, taking her season’s tally to eight.

Spencer prevented the score from getting worse for the visitors, first denying Press from distance with a good spring and parry to her left, and then tipping Hanson’s full-blooded drive over the bar after the Scot had turned on the burners from the halfway line. Hanson would try her luck again from just outside the penalty box, but this time Spurs stopper showed that she could get across low to her right as well and push the ball away.

Kennedy came up with a stoppage consolation goal for Tottenham curling a free-kick into Mary Earp’s top right hand corner after it took a nick off the United ‘wall’.

“I think, overall, we weren’t as consistent as we would have wanted to have been within the game – in possession, on the ball, taking care of that. It made it a little bit difficult to maintain a press when we’re not looking after the ball when we do win it. Ultimately, we have to make sure that we keep in a position to remain competitive for longer in the game and to respond better. This week we didn’t respond as well as we did last week when we conceded the first goal; we just didn’t find our feet really after that point today.”

Rehanne Skinner, Manager, Tottenham Hotspur via football.london

A 50/50 split of wins and defeats for United over their last ten fixtures highlights where they may have surrendered the opportunity to improve on last year’s fourth place and subsequently earn the right to Champions’ League football next season.

But this was much more like it from Casey Stoney’s side, with bags of pace up front and plenty of creativity in midfield. United just blew Tottenham away.

They also welcomed Leah Galton back into the fold as a second half sub. Galton hadn’t featured since the Manchester Derby in week 15 – although with Kirsty Hanson putting in a blistering display, the United boss may feel she doesn’t need to rush her star left winger back too quickly.

Spurs, on the other hand, are winless in nine WSL matches and had their last victory awarded to them by the Football Association.

Neville returned to right back duties following a spell injured and just couldn’t get to grips with Hanson. Kennedy, meanwhile, shifted from midfield to centre back and then had to run around after lightning fast Christen Press, not a good match-up in terms of groundspeed.

Going forward the problems persist. Jessica Naz and Rachel Williams came in alongside Rianna Dean as Skinner went with three centre forwards in her line-up. They were unable to fashion a shot on target between them.

Tottenham host Chelsea next knowing that they could still have a big say in where the league title ends up. If they turn up somewhere near their best, they could make it a nervy afternoon for Emma Hayes’ side. But if Spurs play like this again, the Blues may go into their half-time oranges already shifting focus to Reading on the final day…

Arsenal 2-0 Brighton & Hove Albion

Arsenal Midfielder Jordan Nobbs got her fourth and fifth league goals of the campaign versus Brighton…

“It was a bit frustrating. We created some good chances but we let them in the game. The reality is the only chance they created was through our error – we had a few wayward passes. Today we wanted to play too quick, too early but if we had changed the tempo we would have been more secure and successful. These things happen in the ebb and flow of seasons and I’m going to take it as a positive – a little warning, going into next Wednesday [versus West Ham].”

Joe Montemurro, Manager, Arsenal, via football365.com and football.london

No sooner had United leapfrogged Arsenal in the table, than the Gunners responded with a professional – if occasionally nervy – two goal victory over Brighton to wrest back control of the final Champions League spot.

Joe Montemourro’s side forged ahead in the 27th minute when Jordan Nobbs arrived in the right place on the edge of the penalty box to half-volley Daniëlle van de Donk’s cross from the right under Megan Walsh.

Vivianne Miedema should have made it two in the second half when Lotte Wubben-Moy played her into the penalty area but the Dutch international fired wide.

A mix up between Manuela Zinsberger and Leah Williamson left the Gunners’ stopper stranded far from home. But with the goal at her mercy Emily Simpkins couldn’t hit the target.

It would prove a costly miss. With 13 minutes to go, van de Donk, Miedema and Beth Mead broke away down the right flank and Jordan Nobbs was presented with the easiest of tap ins at the back post.

Substitute Caitlin Foord tried to make the result more secure with a drive from the edge of the penalty area that flashed wide, and Miedema was denied a late goal by Walsh who pushed the ball around the post low to her right.

“We know that they are a really good side, technically very good, they cover the ground very quickly and execute the ball very well so even though we lost, I think I was really pleased with the attitude and how we applied the strategy. For us at this stage and against teams of that quality, it is about: ‘can we perform? can we compete?, can we make it difficult for them?’ I think at times we did that well today.”

Hope Powell, Manager, Brighton & Hove Albion, via fawslfulltime.co.uk

While there is a very significant quality divide in the WSL between the top 4 and the rest, one of the advantages of a twelve team league is that most of the division still has something to play for in the final weeks. Arsenal, on a six match win streak take on West Ham next – a side still fighting to avoid the drop. It’s the Gunners game in hand on Manchester United so they will want to ensure that they can forge a points gap on their rivals to add to their better goal difference.

Games against the Gunners haven’t proved to be a happy experience for Brighton in the past. While the result would have been disappointing, Hope Powell’s side are showing signs of maturity and confidence in the way that they are approaching the top teams.

The Seagulls take on Reading next in a mid-table clash that no one will take much notice of. Their rematch with bottom side Bristol City on the last day of the season, however..!

Birmingham City 1-1 Reading

Loan defender Ruby Mace scores another crucial goal in Birmingham’s fight for WSL survival…

“Everyone’s putting pressure on the bottom four but there’s no pressure in our camp. It’s weird because it’s a really relaxed camp. We know where we need to get points and the players were outstanding today. They should take a lot of heart. They feel like it’s a defeat because they want to win the game, but I’m delighted with them. I think we’ve created the better chances. They’ve left everything out there. I’m happy with the point but I’m more happy with the performance of the players.”

Carla Ward, Manager, Birmingham City, via birminghammail.co.uk

Birmingham City were unable to claw any further away from the bottom two after being held by Reading at Damson Park.

It was a case of opportunities missed for Carla Ward’s side as they continue to hover just two points above the drop zone.

And yet the Blues got off to the perfect start on 6 minutes when Sarah Mayling whipped in a corner from the left that keeper Grace Moloney could only half deal with and Ruby Mace lashed in the loose ball.

Claudia Walker nearly made it two with a thumping effort from outside the penalty box that Moloney brilliantly tipped over.

When Walker and Mayling combined to fashion a cut back for Ruesha Littlejohn after the break, Birmingham should have put some breathing space in the score line. Instead the midfielder skewed her shot and, even though it ricocheted off defender Bethan Roberts and back towards goal, Moloney was able to gather.

Then, in the time honoured tradition of sides near the bottom never doing anything the easy way, Birmingham conceded a scruffy equaliser. When Fara Williams swung in a corner from the right, Deanna Cooper’s header was blocked by Hannah Hampton but the ball broke to Rachel Rowe and she lashed it into the bottom corner.

The Blues looked to regain the initiative. Christie Murray’s dipping drive from 30-yards had Moloney beaten but crashed back off the cross bar.

And Reading could have taken all three points near the end when Rowe and returning attacker Brooke Chaplen combined to set up Danielle Carter, but the striker fired straight at Hampton.

“We were chasing the game and we knew we needed to get something out of it, so I’m happy we did. We had really good build-up play, we moved the ball quickly. It’s just a case of our pass choices and end product in the final third. We had enough shots in and around the goal that might have gone in on another day but, for us, it was just about having a solid performance away from home.”

Kelly Chambers, Manager, Reading, via getreading.co.uk

Reading are one of a very small band of teams in the middle of the table who have little to play in their own right – survival is assured, but they’re not about trouble the top three. Credit to them, then, for staying in this match when it would have been easier to go through the motions and quietly ponder which countries are likely to be open for business during June and July for a nice beach getaway.

And that’s important because Reading can still have a bearing on where the WSL title goes. Chelsea await them on the final day of the season and even a draw could be enough to send the trophy north.

Next Wednesday Birmingham take on fierce cross-city rivals Aston Villa in a match where a win for the Blues will virtually guarantee their safety.

From a form perspective it’s not a scenario where fans may readily believe it’s going to happen. They are winless in twelve (if you count the Spurs ‘award’). They haven’t tasted victory in the WSL since Saturday 14th November. Their opponent that day? Aston Villa.

A betting person might plump for the draw. The Blues have tied three of their last four fixtures. Objectively, it wouldn’t be a disaster if Carla Ward’s side shared Second City points, however much that thought might grate on a local supporter. West Ham travel to Arsenal on the same night and Bristol City face Manchester United in their next match.

Manchester City looks a tall order the first weekend of May for Birmingham but they are capable of closing out their season with some points at home to Tottenham Hotspur. It may end up being survival by a thousand cuts, but nobody at Birmingham is going to care about that…

West Ham United 0-0 Everton

West Ham Manager Olli Harder: Like British Rail used to; getting there slowly…

“If I’m honest, I’m really disappointed that we haven’t won. I think we deserved all three points, and we created the bulk of the big chances during the game. The work rate was unbelievable, which is what we ask for week in, week out. I’m happy with the performance, but at the same time, we’re not just looking for that, we’re looking for results. I’ll take the point. It’s another small step forward and we’re getting there slowly. It’s a good point and another stride in the right direction.”

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

Despite putting in one of their better performances at Victoria Road this season, West Ham were still unable to achieve that elusive first league victory.

The Hammers remain just two points above the relegation trap door although they do have a significantly better goal difference on their rivals. But it was a case of opportunities missed for Olli Harder’s side as they made most of the running against a hardworking Everton side that seemed content to counter attack.

Martha Thomas had the best of the hosts’ first half chances, latching on to a loose pass by Izzy Christiansen, beating Rikke Sevecke but then screwing her shot wide.

At the other end Nicoline Sørensen’s drive was well saved by Courntey Brosnan.

West Ham thought they had a good penalty shout when the ball hit Poppy Pattinson from point blank range during a corner scramble but referee Helen Conley waved their appeals away.

Hammers’ midfielder Kenza Dali – having her best match in weeks – drove over the bar after good build up between Thomas and Dagný Brynjarsdóttir. Then the midfielder swung in a perfect free-kick delivery from the left but Emily van Egmond got the timing of her header all wrong. Dali’s cross from deep out on the right located Thomas in the six-yard box but the striker’s headed flick clattered the cross bar.

The Toffees upped their tempo in the closing stages without making clear-cut openings. Izzy Christiansen’s attempted free-kick was the closest they got to breaking the deadlock; it took a wild deflection and spun narrowly wide with Brosnan completely wrong-footed.

“The activity in both boxes was similar, but theirs was a little more clear cut. We were trying to find that perfect cross, that perfect pass, but they played with five at the back, rather than three at the back, and it just made it difficult to get anything clear cut.”

Willie Kirk, Manager, Everton, via liverpoolecho.co.uk

With both Arsenal and Manchester City both looming on the calendar and having something tangible to play for, West Ham really could have done with converting one of their chances in this match. There was no shortage of work rate, organisation and attacking endeavour – interestingly manager Harder made no substitutions throughout the match. Their goal was rarely threatened. They made Everton look pretty ordinary. It was just the final execution that was lacking.

If they are to survive it is likely the points that can make that happen will come against another relegation rival: Aston Villa (who travel to Birmingham on Wednesday to complete a catch-up fixture). At least it’s an away match. The Hammers could be about to go an entire season winless at home in the WSL.

On the day Everton looked about 5/10 by their standards. A point on the road is respectable and they already know where they will be finishing this season. Willie Kirk’s side complete their schedule against the two sides above them competing for the final Champions League spot: Arsenal and Manchester United. If the Toffees really have serious aspirations of breaking into the WSL’s elite, this next fortnight is going to be the ultimate proving ground for their playing squad and the management team…

Manchester City 2-2 Chelsea

This match was covered here.

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