FA Women’s Super League – Week 21 Review

Manchester City beat Birmingham to go back to the top of the WSL; Arsenal finally secure their Champions League berth [probably] with victory over Everton; Bristol City lose to United but aren’t yet relegated; Aston Villa and West Ham draw; Reading and Brighton have a ding-dong, mid-table thriller at the Madejski Stadium. Football’s social media boycott is over (for now) and we’re heading into the last week of the season. It’s Week 21 of the FAWSL…

Manchester City 4-0 Birmingham City

City winger Chloe Kelly: A brace against Birmingham and a Player of the Season nomination…

“We’re the only team in the WSL to go unbeaten at home, which is very impressive. We’ve created a bit of a fortress. The game took us to 100 goals in all competitions. It’s great that we’re taking it into the final game. We have to make sure we go to West Ham and do a professional job. Everyone is playing at the same time but we’ll be concentrating on our end. First thing we’ll do if we achieve our objective is see what happens elsewhere. If it happens for us, amazing. If it doesn’t, it was down to us – we had our chance. It’s been frustrating not to have had supporters. The spectacle put on in the WSL and the excitement to have the title race go to the final game is amazing for women’s football.”

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

Manchester City made their way back to the top of the WSL with a comfortable win over Birmingham, ensuring that the title race will go to the last day of the season.

Despite this defeat Blues boss Carla Ward had the ‘other half’ of Manchester to thank for their WSL survival – with United edging out Bristol City (report below).

Chloe Kelly brought a good save out of Hannah Hampton with less than sixty seconds on the clock, but would go on to give City the lead inside ten minutes. Left winger Lauren Hemp got a yard on her marker and cut the ball back for Caroline Weir, whose low shot was parried by the keeper only for Kelly to punch home the rebound.

City doubled their advantage in the 23rd minute. Georgia Stanway (playing at left back!) and Weir combined to thread Hemp in behind the Blues’ defence again. The winger looked to find Ellen White at the front post but the ball eluded her and instead bobbled through to Kelly who volleyed in from close range.

Their third goal should have come from the penalty spot.

White provided a through ball for Kelly and full-back Rebecca Holloway to race after. Kelly got their first, looked to Cruyff-turn inside her but tumbled. Referee Emily Heaslip pointed to the spot but it looked a soft award. Meanwhile Kelly was in some distress on the ground and eventually had to be given oxygen and stretchered off.

As Kelly was the designated penalty taker, somebody else needed to step forward. Weir took on the responsibility after a considerable delay, but Hampton guessed right, dived right and flicked the ball around the post for a corner.

Weir and Hampton’s private duel continued with the keeper making another fine stop at full stretch to her left. Then the Scot hit a rasping volley from ten yards out that the Blues’ keeper somehow parried for a corner.

It was shame, then, that Birmingham let all that good goalkeeping go to waste from the subsequent set-piece on 85 minutes. Janine Beckie drove the ball to the front post, Hemp flicked it on and Esme Morgan was on the spot to guide the ball home – her first WSL goal for the club.

City put some extra gloss on the score in stoppage time, from another corner on the right. Alex Greenwood met Beckie’s delivery and powered it towards goal. Birmingham couldn’t clear it and substitute Sam Mewis hammered in the loose ball.

“I’m a bit disappointed with the last two goals because I think the second-half we defended well, we looked after each other, but we were up against world class opposition today. I told them at the end, they will take more positives than negatives from that and we go into the last game now knowing that a win could potentially see us finish eighth. That’s got to be what we focus on now. There was a lot of heart, a lot of positives so I’m pleased. Credit to the players because they are the ones that have dug in. They’ve had adversity chucked at them left, right and centre this year but they have stayed focused, looked after each other and stayed together.”

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

So, City head back to the WSL summit having played one game more than Chelsea – who were busy knocking Bayern Munich out of the Champions League.

Gareth Taylor’s side now have to wait and see whether their rivals go on to win their game in hand versus Spurs next Wednesday. A win would leave it in the Londoners’ own hands. A draw, however, would put City back in the driving seat on goals scored (assuming it doesn’t finish 4-4!)

Birmingham get to go into their last match of the season with Spurs knowing that they are ostensibly safe from the drop regardless of the result. Bristol City would need to conjure up 25-goal winning margin at Brighton to turn things around.

But hang on… there is still one loose thread in all this still for the Blues.

Last week the Football Association charged them with “a breach of FA Rule E12 following their Barclays FA Women’s Super League fixture against Reading on Sunday 25 April 2021.” The alleged charge is that Birmingham City Women failed to ensure that a player registered with the club complied with an automatic suspension.

The player in question, midfielder Ruesha Littlejohn, has also been charged with “a breach of FA Rule E10”. It is alleged that she failed to comply with an automatic suspension by participating in [that] fixture.

The club had until today to make their case, which is heading down the well-travelled road of admin error. But will that wash? And if not, will there be points deducted? At this stage nobody knows. But it would be yet another kick in the teeth for a management team that has faced adversity almost non-stop since their arrival midway through the 2019/20 campaign…

Everton 1-2 Arsenal

Arsenal Manager Joe Montemurro – Leaving the club at the end of the season with UWCL football pretty much assured…

“The pressure was on today and it was a different kind of pressure, but we knew that we had to get a result today and then we can bring it home next week. I was probably a little bit disappointed more than anything because we did everything right today. Everton were reducing spaces a lot better [in the second half] and we probably weren’t quick enough in terms of changing our point of attack. They went for about 10 or 15 minutes, but then they dropped off and I think we started to reengage and be a bit more positive.”

Joe Montemurro, Manager, Arsenal, via Arsenal.com

Arsenal left it very late to all-but-secure their Champions League spot for next season, beating Everton in the 94th minute with a little help from the referee and Kim Little’s insanely good penalty under pressure.

While the Gunners and Manchester United can theoretically still finish on the same number of points, Arsenal have a vastly superior goal differential.

Arsenal midfielder Jordan Nobbs had the best of the early chances curling in an effort that Sandy MacIver did well to flick over the cross bar.

But there was little the Everton stopper could do about the Gunners’ opener halfway through the first period. Lotte Wubben-Moy drove a ball through midfield, Caitlin Foord helped it on and Katie McCabe hared into the penalty box, deftly lobbing MacIver from six-yards.

Arsenal continued to make chances without extending their advantage. Kim Little and Beth Mead both failed to hit the target when well-placed. Noëlle Maritz compounded the visitors’ frustration when she blasted Foord’s cut back over the horizontal at the second attempt.

Everton had managed to keep a foothold in the game, improving in the second half. When Arsenal switched off at a throw-in they took their chance. Izzy Christiansen hooked the ball in from the right flank and Megan Finnigan arrived to head past a static Zinsberger.

Neither side really looked like they had a winner in them but, with the match deep in stoppage time, referee Sarah Garratt deemed that Finnigan had tripped McCabe in the penalty area. It was one of those moments where pundit and former player Danny Murphy on Match of the Day would probably say: some referees give them and some don’t.

Well, this one did. Arsenal captain Little stepped forward, placed the ball and blasted it into the keeper’s top-left-hand corner.

“I do think there is a little bit of a mental block for the players in terms of actually believing they are as good as these [top] teams and that they should be taking points off them. I keep referring back to that Chelsea game at Goodison Park [in the FA Cup], and how much belief we should have taken from that; but it’s not really carried on into the season. So there is a little bit of a mental block and we understand how important it is to break that before we get to next season, but there’s probably three of four combinations of things that we’ll work at and chip away at one by one.”

Willie Kirk, Manager, Everton, via goodisonnews.com

Arsenal and Everton have a similar problem this season. They both struggle to get points off the teams they need to, in order to achieve their respective pre-season aspirations.

Arsenal want to win the league but have struggled against Chelsea (1 point) and Manchester City (0 points). They did share the six available points evenly with Manchester United which was key to them finishing third, but the bottom line is if you can’t beat the top two you’re not going to win the league.

The Toffees, meanwhile, want to break into the elite club but they haven’t won a single point against any of the top four WSL teams. They have one last chance to shake a certain primate from a certain area of the body just below the shoulder blades next weekend when they take on Manchester United at Leigh Sports Village.

The result itself will make no difference to the final standings, but might just give Willie Kirk’s players a starting point in the off-season, from which they can start reprogramming their mindset when it comes to taking on the WSL’s toughest challenges.

Bristol City 0-1 Manchester United

United manager Casey Stoney – A great season despite a bit of disappointment at the end…

“It was a surface I think we could have adapted better to, and it was a difficult surface in terms of the way we played. Having said that, I thought some of our basics could have been better. I said to the players that the only thing I care about is the three points and we found a way to win on a really difficult day. We did hang in there a bit – some of it was a little bit of luck if I’m honest – because Bristol had a couple of chances which they could have took.”

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

Manchester United condemned Bristol City to their thirteenth defeat of the season, meaning the Vixens have to beat Brighton next weekend to have any chance of WSL survival.

The home side put in a good shift at Twerton Park and had their chances, the best of which fell to Keira Skeels who rattled the cross bar after a corner was only half cleared.

United striker Christen Press had a shot on the turn blocked, retrieved the ball but fired wired.

Ebony Salmon raced in behind the United defence but a heavy touch took the ball away from her and Mary Earps was able to make the stop.

At the other end Ella Toone’s shot was turned around the post by keeper Sophie Baggaley, low to her right.

Into the second half and Jess Sigsworth was left in all sorts of space down the right wing. Her run towards goal had everything but the finish, which she scuffed horribly.

That’s was Sigsworth’s last meaningful contribution and Jane Ross entered the match as a substitute which moved Press out to the left.

It would be a pivotal tactical change by Casey Stoney as United worked the ball down the left in the 79th minute. Press shook off her defender and crossed from the by-line, Ross got a touch, and Yana Daniëls’ lunging clearance could only divert the ball off the post and into the net.

Press blazed over late on after another quick break away but one goal would be enough for the visitors.

“I’m devastated for the girls, but ultimately you need to take the chances that you create. I thought we were excellent. Sometimes when your luck is down, your luck is down but we can take a lot of positives and confidence from this performance. Nothing would have changed if we would have got a point, in terms of what outcome is needed next week. We need to go to Brighton and find a way of getting three points. You know with this group of players that they’re not going to leave anything on the pitch and we know we have to go to Brighton and win, and hope other results go our way.”

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

Aston Villa are realistically the only side that Bristol City can jump above should the Vixens win at Brighton next weekend. Goal difference has almost certainly ruled out everyone else. Villa have to get a point at Arsenal to condemn Matt Beard’s side to Championship football next season – easier said than done, of course.

There is still the matter of an ongoing FA investigation on Birmingham City, but nobody would want a points deductions to be the reason a team is relegated on the final day.

United have already smashed last season’s points per game average (2.1 v 1.64) and managed to push Arsenal to the last weekend of the season for the third Champions League spot.

Five defeats in nine this side of Christmas left Casey Stoney’s side with too much to do but, while there will be some disappointment, the Red Devils should look back on this campaign with plenty of pride. They’re a genuine trophy contender now, are developing some very good young players.

Fans would ideally like the WSL to be a 12-horse race, but that’s not how football works these days. There have been just three title contenders in recent years. United are on the way to making it four and that’s got to be good for enticing new people to the women’s game in England…

Reading 3-2 Brighton & Hove Albion

Retiring midfielder Fara Williams scores on her final home game at the Madejski…

“I had to remind the players of the performance, which I was pleased with. It was nice to get the three points. Apart from around three minutes in the game which were bizarre, we controlled the match. To be fair, it was two moments in a game which were disappointing, but it was important to make sure that minute didn’t define the game. Credit to the girls, they didn’t let it affect them and we dominated the second half. The penalty was typical Fara Williams. She has been a huge part of this club over the past four seasons. She has still had the hunger and desire to improve as a player.”

Kelly Chambers, Manager, Reading, via BerkshireLive

Fara Williams’ last home game for Reading before retirement ended in victory thanks to Natasha Harding’s 56th minute strike.

Brighton made a game of it, though, with Lee Geum-min scoring twice in the space of a minute to claw back a two-goal deficit.

Williams entered the field via a players ‘guard of honour’ and then received a presentation by manager Kelly Chambers and Brighton boss Hope Powell. It was a nice touch. Powell was Head Coach for the vast majority of the midfielder’s 172 England caps.

The match itself was the very definition of mid-table dead rubber for 35 minutes until Reading forward Emma Harries was bundled over in the penalty box.

Williams was the designated taker and ran full tilt at the ball before dinking it down the middle of the goal – a perfect panenka to sign off her four years at the club.

The Seagulls looked to get on terms quickly but Kayleigh Green was denied by Grace Moloney’s fine double stop.

The Royals were quick to punish their opponent’s profligacy. Two minutes before the break Harding did well to keep the ball in play on the right wing and crossed for Dan Carter. The ball arrived just behind the striker, but she managed to flick it up and swivel away from her marker before executing a beautifully controlled half-volley that found the bottom left-hand corner.

Incredibly, Brighton were level by half time.

Maya Le Tissier’s free kick from her own half was headed into the penalty area by Green and Lee arrived to nod past Moloney.

From the subsequent kick-off Lee robbed Williams and sprinted towards Reading’s goal before unleashing a crackerjack from fully 35-yards that roared into the top right corner. Perhaps ‘ironic’ is the wrong word, but Williams has been scoring this type of ‘worldie’ against opponents her entire career and then, on such a special day, she’s on the end of one. Is that ironic?

Anyway 2-2 at half-time and sixth place to play for. Harding got in behind the Seagull’s defence and beat keeper Megan Walsh but Fliss Gibbons was able to clear the ball away before it rolled in.

However, the Welsh international got the goal that her performance deserved minutes later. A long ball out of defence wasn’t dealt with by the Brighton backline and Harding hared in behind Le Tissier to nutmeg the goalkeeper.

Brighton’s Inessa Kaagman and Reading’s Amelie Eikeland traded chances before the end but neither could add to the scoring.

“We were just so pleased for Lee. She hadn’t scored all season so for her to get two goals and two great goals as well was just a special moment for her. She is very skilful and does a lot of hard work for the team which might go unnoticed. I couldn’t believe the second [goal] but her header for the first was a good finish as well. She is such a popular member of the squad who is always smiling, and she enjoys her football so much. We were all so pleased for her.”

Felicity ‘Fliss’ Gibbons, Defender, Brighton & Hove Albion, via brightonandhovealbion.com

Both sides find themselves ensconced in mid-table ahead of the final weekend but both will have a big say in how things pan out at the top and bottom of the table respectively.

Reading travel to Chelsea knowing that they can prevent the Champions from retaining their title and hand the initiative to Manchester City.

Brighton, meanwhile, host Bristol City knowing that a win or draw will relegate the Vixens. Defeat, however, could send Aston Villa down instead.

Hope Powell’s side will not ‘go easy’ on City. They have a top half finish to play for and the Seagulls got a bit of a battering at Twerton Park earlier in the season. So, a hardy mixture of revenge plus pride restoration versus sheer will to survive should make for a volatile afternoon at the People’s Pension Stadium…

Aston Villa 0-0 West Ham United

West Ham’s Hawa Cissoko – Moving to a back three has given the strong French defender her chance, and she’s embraced it…

“I’m wondering how we haven’t come away from the game with a win. It’s been the tale of our season really; we haven’t been effective enough going forward. Performance levels throughout the game were pretty good, there were a couple of moments that I wasn’t happy with, and we have our goalkeeper to thank for pulling off some good saves. Overall – it was a fairly good performance for us. Unfortunately, we’ve haven’t been able to hit the back of the net in the last couple of games, but at the same time we’re keeping clean sheets, which is always good.”

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

West Ham pretty much guaranteed their WSL survival with a goalless draw at Villa Park, but manager Olli Harder would be frustrated at full-time that his players couldn’t convert just one of the 28 chances they created.

In 180 minutes of football against each other recently, neither side has been able to score, but this stalemate was a lot more helpful to the Hammers than the Villans.

Both managers made just one change to their starting eleven. Harder brought in centre forward Martha Thomas for versatile utility player Laura Vetterlein; while Villa boss Marcus Bignot benched young full back Freya Gregory for ball-playing centre half Elisha N’Dow.

From the first whistle the visitors came out with attacking intent winning a series of free kicks and corners. Kenza Dali’s delivery from the right on 7 minutes was nodded back across goal by Dagný Brynjarsdóttir but Grace Fisk put her header wide.

Dali drilled a free-kick from 20-yards past the three-player wall but into the side netting. Then Emily van Egmond and Dali combined to fashion a cross for Brynjarsdóttir but the Icelandic international couldn’t hit the target either.

Villa, who had given away stoppage time equalisers in their previous two fixtures, looked content to play within themselves and conserve energy, but started to move the ball around better as the first half unfolded. It was West Ham, though, that continued to make scoring opportunities.

Van Egmond tried her luck from 25-yards but didn’t generate the power needed to trouble Lisa Weiß. Then, just before half-time the visitors worked an opening down the right, Thomas found Brynjarsdóttir in the six-yard but she skewed her shot into full back Asmita Ale before Cecilie Redisch [Kvamme] and Maz Pacheco got in each other’s way on the follow up.

Aston Villa began the second period with increased vigour and created arguably the best chance of the match when Mana Iwabuchi threaded Shania Hayles in behind the back line, but the striker couldn’t beat MacKenzie Arnold with two attempts and the keeper finally smothered the ball.

Back West Ham came again. Redisch fired into the side netting after combining with Brynjarsdóttir down the right. Thomas couldn’t head Gilly Flaherty’s cross on target. And then, in the 71st minute, Flaherty played Dali in but neither she nor van Egmond nor Pacheco could apply the finish before Villa scrambled the ball away.

In the closing stages it was all West Ham. Dali found some space on the edge of the box but drove past the post. Martha Thomas shook off Nat Haigh but thumped her half-volley against the cross bar with Weiß just about tidying up afterwards.

Dali – who had pulled the midfield strings for her team the entire match – tried another distance effort that had the keeper scrambling but drifted wide. Brynjarsdóttir got her header wrong again, this time from an in-swinging corner with two minutes left and then van Egmond rattled the Villa bar in stoppage time.

There was to be no 96th minute concession for Villa on this occasion and they held on to register an all-important point that keeps survival in their own hands.

“We’ve gone four games unbeaten with young players who have never experienced this before and have produced the performances they’ve put in. I don’t think anybody would argue against us if were talking now about getting eight points from these four games. It wasn’t to be, but let’s hope the four we’ve got so far, with the opportunity for more next Sunday, will be enough.”

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

The Villans need a point at Arsenal next weekend to be sure of holding on to their spot in the top flight of women’s football. It’s likely that they are going to have to score – and probably more than one – to get anything out of the Gunners.

It’s the BIGGEST of games for Marcus Bignot’s young side and, objectively speaking, their survival probably hinges as much more on how Brighton perform against Bristol City. Unless Villa can find some unique inspiration and deliver a fantastic footballing miracle.

For the Hammers, well they are ostensibly safe and with no home league wins on the board this season, surely not even the most optimistic fan would envisage Manchester City doing anything other than winning next weekend at Victoria Road with the WSL title on the line…

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