FAWSL: The Last Midweek Catch Up of the Season

With the fixtures calendar heading towards the end of April, the Women’s Super League had just one midweek catch up remaining. Arsenal kept their Champions League aspirations on track with victory over West Ham; while Birmingham and Aston Villa couldn’t be separated in the ‘Second City derby’. Now all the teams have two Sunday matches remaining to decide the final standings, where the trophies go, who gets to play in Europe and who gets to play Coventry United next year…

Birmingham City 1-1 Aston Villa

Full Blooded: Birmingham hung in there and Villa allowed victory to slip away…

“We were second best all night but honestly, I don’t care how badly we played right now because we got the point. Despite playing poorly, the one positive was that we did not rollover. I said to them that I didn’t care how badly they played, you’ve dug in and saved yourselves from a very different post-match team talk. Everyone wrote them off at the start of the season and they have been sensational, on and off the pitch. They are a joy to work with and they deserve this, they don’t give in and they look after each other.”

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

For the second game in a row Aston Villa had victory in their grasp only to throw it away in stoppage time when Veatriki Sarri’s free-kick sailed into the net untouched.

Unsurprisingly for a local derby and relegation battle, this game was a frantic and very competitive affair.

Villa started the match with fire in their bellies. Chloe Arthur spurned two good chances in the opening four minutes: half-volleying her first effort high and wide from point blank range; then heading Asmita Ale’s right wing cross past the post.

The visitors continued to make the early running. In the 9th minute Shania Hayles’ burst down the left ended with a ball into Mana Iwabuchi, who created half a yard but her shot deflected off a defender. Moments later the Japanese international had another sight of goal but couldn’t get enough swerve from the outside of her boot to direct the ball on target.

Villa took the lead in the 28th minute breaking quickly from a Birmingham corner. Iwabuchi found Hayles galloping down the right wing, she crossed for Freya Gregory and, although her first effort crashed off the underside of the cross bar, the young full back kept her composure to half-volley in at the second bite. What a time to score her first WSL goal, and against her old club.

Birmingham boss Carla Ward substituted Jamie-Lee Napier at half-time and brought Emily Murphy on to shake up their attack. Murphy would conjure up a shot on goal for the hosts just before the hour mark but her 30-yard effort soared into the Jerroms Stand.

Villa continued to play at a high, almost frenetic tempo without troubling Hampton in the Blues’ goal. Chloe Arthur had a penalty shout on 63 minutes but Jane Simms waved it away.

Emotions were running high. The Birmingham manager found herself in the referee’s book on 65 minutes, although it wasn’t clear why.

Blues’ defender Georgia Brougham shanked a volley well wide in the aftermath of a Sarah Mayling corner.

Once Marcus Bignot started making substitutions it seemed that the best of Villa’s race had been run. Now in game management mode, they looked to see out the result through dogged defending and frustrating their opponents. By the 84th minute they were taking the ball away from goal and into the corners; defenders no longer went upfield for set-pieces.

Quite how Villa fans would have been feeling when 6 minutes of stoppage time were shown… ‘here we go again’ springs to mind.

The free-kick that Birmingham were awarded in the 95th minute (for handball) would be hotly disputed by the Villa boss afterwards, and his calls of “linesman, linesman!” as Sarri composed herself to deliver the free-kick suggest he wasn’t happy with where the Blues’ substitute had placed the ball either. Nonetheless, Sarri – making her first WSL appearance – conjured up a text-book cross from the right, targeted to curl just inside the far post if no one got a touch.

And no one did.

Cue wild Birmingham celebrations.

“It’s hard to take because it’s an uncontrollable. We learned lessons from the Bristol game in terms of how we conceded – we were very deep – but this one was taken away from us. It’s a hard one to take. Credit to Birmingham for taking advantage. We were the better team. We deserved the three points but we haven’t got them. It was disappointing in terms of the manner in which we didn’t get those three points. It’s just disappointing.”

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

If there are such a thing as ‘football Gods’ pulling strings in a stadium-shaped Heaven to play with supporters’ fragile emotions, well they’ve had a field day with Birmingham this season. One could argue they’ve been quite vindictive most of the way. Ravaged by injuries all year, games postponed, a ground move (and back again), behind-the-scenes controversy that hit the mainstream media… you’d be had pushed to claim that manager Carla Ward has had much good luck this season.

And yet, after another sub-par performance, her side has come away with a point.

Like their match with West Ham last month, they offered NOTHING in the way of sustained attacking threat in the second half; certainly nothing that their opponents weren’t able to swat away comfortably. And, like that match at Victoria Road, Birmingham equalised with a minute of added time left. There might not be much in the way of quality, but there’s an undeniable will in Ward’s group to stay in the WSL.

If Bristol City don’t get anything out of Manchester United next Sunday, this point against Villa has guaranteed WSL football at St. Andrew’s for the Women’s team next season, regardless of what happens in their remaining fixtures.

For Villa, if they end up falling back into the Championship, they will look at these last two matches – where they dropped four points in around 90 seconds of stoppage-time football against relegation rivals – and rue a lack of ambition when they had one foot on the throat of their opponents and failed to finish them off.

Game management is all well and good when an opponent is coming back into the match but Villa were firing on all cylinders, completely in control. Running the ball into the corners when there could be 10, 12 minutes left… This was their approach against Bristol City last weekend and look how well that worked out.

There was no question they looked like they wanted it more than their cross city rivals. Marcus Bignot was highly vocal throughout, and tenacious performances like that of superb 16-year old Olivia McLoughlin in midfield coupled with the kind of quality that Iwabuchi was able to offer, it should have been enough to get them over the line.

Villa have one more relegation rival to face, West Ham United, at the Banks’ Stadium on Sunday. If they can find a way to turn their first 60 minutes here into around 100 minutes (just to be on the safe side) they have every chance of finally turning one point into three.

And they need to, desperately, because Arsenal lie in wait on the final day of the season…

Arsenal 2-0 West Ham United

On target: Kim Little for Arsenal versus West Ham…

“I can only remember one opportunity that we gave them – one header in the second half where we were caught at the back post, which really was their best chance. Going back three, four or five games now, I can’t think of teams really opening us up, so as much as the back four and goalkeepers get all the credit, the work rate and balance of our midfielders, and positioning of our strikers, is very important too.”

Joe Montemurro, Manager, Arsenal, via football.london

Arsenal took their WSL win streak to seven matches with a confident victory over West Ham at a rain-soaked Meadow Park.

With the Hammers embroiled in a relegation battle, work rate was the order of the day but they rarely troubled an Arsenal team that is now just three points away from securing their Champions League berth for next season.

Australian Keeper Mackenzie Arnold was in good form between the sticks for the visitors, making a fine reaction stop early on to push Caitlin Foord’s close-range header over the bar

Katie McCabe volleyed Vivianne Miedema’s cross past the left hand upright, and then the Dutch striker would have been disappointed to drag a very presentable chance into the side netting.

But she was unerring in the 33rd minute, receiving Noëlle Maritz’s throw from the right, spinning inside Laura Vetterlein and thumping a shot off the outside of her left foot that swerved away from the keeper’s dive.

Into the second period and Arnold saved at Beth Mead’s feet after a slick interchange between Kim Little and McCabe down the left. Then the West Ham stopper denied compatriot Foord for a second time with the striker through on goal, but stretching to make a good contact.

Arsenal extended their lead in the 73rd minute when Jill Roord, Foord and Maritz combined to work Little into a yard of space in the penalty box. The Scot shook off Grace Fisk and squeezed her shot past the onrushing keeper from a tight angle.

The visitors managed just the one effort on target. Substitute Martha Thomas nearly headed in a consolation but Lydia Williams protected her clean sheet with a good spring to her right.

“I thought everybody did brilliantly tonight in terms of the defensive effort and application – seeing my girls chasing them around for 90 minutes on the pitch is fantastic, we just lacked a bit of quality in some big moments. We still have everything in our own hands, which is important, and as long as we show this type of character, fight and resilience, which we’ve shown now for several games on the bounce, I have confidence that we can get that result [against Aston Villa].”

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

Arsenal have hit a rich vein of form in the run-in and look odds on to claim third place in the final WSL standings. These things are never a done deal, though, and they visit Everton next – a side that has not managed to take a point from any of the top four yet but has shown increased resilience when going toe-to-toe with the big clubs.

West Ham head into another relegation ‘six pointer’, this time a rematch with Aston Villa – although the way nearly all of these matches have ended in draws, one might want to rethink that terminology. Olli Harder’s side need to find their ‘A’ game against the Villans, who have performed well recently without being able to secure the right reward for their efforts.

‘Must-win’ is overused, but this is the reality for West Ham on Sunday. They simply can’t afford to go into a home match with Manchester City needing victory to stay up. They haven’t won a WSL game at Victoria Road all year and City could still have a league title to play for…

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