Sunderland Ladies 0-2 City Women (Parris 40, Duggan 75)
Competition: FA Women’s Super League 1
Venue: Hetton Centre, Sunderland (att: 1,411)
Date: 29 April 2016 (19:45)
Following on from last weekend’s professional victory against Birmingham City Ladies, City Women were on the road again, this time heading up to the North East to take on Sunderland. A traditional powerhouse of women’s football, the Black Cats have nurtured some of England’s finest talent, with City quartet Demi Stokes, Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott and Steph Houghton all tracing their early years back to the club. It was to be a homecoming of some importance, then, for City skipper Houghton, as she looked to steer her side above Chelsea once more in the WSL 1 table. Even though the Blues took a while to grow into the game, and Sunderland threatened far too many times with balls over the top, a determined and at times breath-taking performance from City saw their 100% league record continue.
Despite shipping seven in a torrid showing away to Arsenal in the FA Women’s Cup t’other week, Sunderland, managed by former Crazy Gang member Carlton Fairweather, are not a team to be underestimated. With a line led by the PFA Women’s Young Player of the Year Beth Mead, and with midfielder Brooke Chaplen having netted five goals in all competitions already this season, Sunderland were more than capable of posing a threat to the Blues, and so the opening exchanges proved.
Although Nikita Parris had a chance from the off, City almost came a cropper after some good pressing from the Black Cats, with sloppy, heavy touches letting the Blues down. In freezing conditions, both sets of players seemed to struggle all night to stay on their feet, with the resultant slips and snatched touches meaning City exacted that fan pet-hate of clearing the ball straight back to the opposition. With 14 minutes on the clock, Parris had another chance to put the Blues ahead; after great work from Scott and Houghton, the forward could only blaze over. Moments later, Parris was again involved as City threatened, tearing down the right and crossing to force a corner. Though thwarted by some good Sunderland defending, the Blues were starting to switch one and two-touch passes with the speed and finesse the City faithful have grown accustomed to.
Kosovare Asllani, the big-name Swedish forward bought from PSG, hasn’t quite set the WSL alight yet, but she aimed a decent free-kick from distance into the box, which an offside Houghton should have done better with. Asllani was involved again as in-form City striker Jane Ross had a chance, after collecting the Swede’s back-heel. And it was only thanks to Rachael Laws’ sterling save after 23 minutes that Asllani didn’t break the deadlock and bag her first competitive goal for City, after Stokes provided the ball thanks to some great turns and pressure on the left. Asllani’s time to shine must surely come soon; her arrival in England was heralded with great fanfare, and at times at the Hetton Centre on Friday, she showed her class, winning back the ball at one point in the first-half spectacularly. The feeling remains that she hasn’t quite gelled with English football yet, however, and more has to be expected from a player of her calibre.
With City proving profligate with their chances, Stephanie Roche, of Puskás Award nomination fame, almost put the Black Cats in front with a wonderful strike from outside the area. City hearts were in mouths, but luckily Bardsley’s expertise was not required, as the shot flew just over. The action then went back up Sunderland’s end, as just after the half hour mark, Laws thwarted Asllani once more, after the Swede had angled Ross’ sizzling cross directly at the Sunderland keeper. Ross herself was soon guilty of wasting a golden opportunity, failing to capitalise on the ball bobbling around the Sunderland area, allowing Laws to gather. Stokes, who had been involved in the build-up play yet again, then tracked back to defend excellently on the right side of the pitch, as the pendulum of pressure swung between both sides.
Roche elicited an incredible save from Bardsley on 36 minutes, forcing the City stopper to dive low to her right to stop a driving header on the far post. Daphne Corboz, who bagged the opening goal against Birmingham last weekend, hit a disappointing effort at Laws soon after, but fittingly it was the effervescent Parris who opened City’s account, capitalising on Corboz’s clever outside-foot pass by controlling the ball and striking it sweetly past Laws into the top right-hand corner.
It was a lead City deserved, with their play evolving as the first half wore on. Indeed, going in at half-time only 1-0 up could be considered a tad frustrating, if not worrying, as the Blues once again missed a collection of chances, and failed to make their possession and passing count. Perhaps with this in mind, City started the second half well, though the Blues soon wilted slightly under a renewed Sunderland surge. Mead, who was poorly fed by her teammates for most of the game, had a half-chance for the Black Cats, before Abby Holmes went down with a nasty, unintentional elbow to the face from Asllani. City then did a passing impression of the Keystone Kops, as a wholly unnecessary goalmouth scramble almost resulted in Sunderland finding an equaliser. Only Jennifer Beattie’s cool head could sort matters.
With 24 minutes of normal time remaining, Asllani wasted a brilliant opportunity to double City’s lead, Victoria Williams doing enough to put the Swede off after Stokes’ clever ball over. Sunderland had a decent penalty appeal ignored soon after, Houghton stealing the ball off Mead on the edge of the area in a perfectly legal fashion, according to referee Rebecca Welch; you have seen them given, however. Holmes then entered Welch’s book for a shocking tackle on Parris, as Sunderland began to grow in confidence, Mead getting in behind City’s defensive line for the first time. Bronze’s blushes were spared after a slip in the Blues’ area resulted in nothing more than a missed opportunity for the Black Cats. Suddenly under the cosh, City manager Nick Cushing made his first change of the evening, FA Cup goal hero Georgia Stanway replacing Corboz.
Chances for Ross and Parris soon followed, with the latter connecting with a decent Asllani free-kick, but failing to trouble Laws. It was no surprise that Cushing decided to make his second change of the night with just over 15 minutes to go, as Toni Duggan replaced Asllani. Barely on the pitch a minute, Duggan doubled City’s advantage with her first touch, scoring a wonderfully worked goal for the Blues. The assist, however, was something else; Stokes received the ball in the middle, on the edge of the box, and set up to shoot, dragging three Sunderland defenders around her, before passing to the left to set Duggan up perfectly. It was a stunning goal which epitomised City’s excellence, how they can turn the screw and produce such class football at a moment’s notice.
Two goals to the good, City’s dominance grew, as a spirited Sunderland side began to wilt. Ross spurned a glorious chance to grab her fifth of the season, and make it 3-0 to City, on 87 minutes, shooting straight at Laws, but the game had been won for the Blues by then anyway. All in all, it was a pleasing victory for Cushing’s charges, who regained top spot in the table. Yet to concede a goal in the league, the Blues are starting to build both momentum, and a winning habit. There were passages of play in the North East on Friday that could, and perhaps should, have resulted in Sunderland scoring, but those can probably be attributed to difficult conditions and the fact that the Blues didn’t really have to get out of second gear all game. The times when they did turn it on were stunning, and the fans will hope to see more of this for longer as the season progresses.
Duggan’s return after a short injury-layoff was the catalyst for City securing all three points, and it is encouraging to see her eye for goal return. Indeed, the one major area where the Blues should be looking to press ahead is that of converting; for the amount of chances they have, City are often wasteful. In a tight season of just sixteen games, goal difference may yet be incredibly important, so the Blues have to do all they can to maximise their chances of winning the title. Yet the current effort from the team, and in particular the sterling defence, has to be applauded, too; they easily weathered Sunderland’s pressure in the end, despite a few hairy moments.
It was interesting to note Cushing’s rationale for the Blues’ small squad of only 22 senior players, with the City manager telling BT Sport that he doesn’t believe in good players not playing. Although a risk, this is encouraging in two ways. Firstly, the Starting XI will not only be high-quality, but also used to playing with each other; secondly, it makes it easier for youngsters such as Alethea Paul to breakthrough into the first team. That said, City fans will have been relieved that the knocks Scott and Houghton picked up during the match appeared to be innocuous. The Blues next face Doncaster Rovers Belles at home on Bank Holiday Monday – always a tasty fixture, given the recent history between the two sides. City will want to ensure their 100% record continues, as the next game after that is surely already a title decider: Chelsea Ladies away, on May 19. If Asllani can really find her feet in the English game, revenge for the FA Cup semi-final defeat should definitely be on the agenda.
My Player of The Match: Not choosing Parris again, as it’d just be embarrassing if I picked her every match. Plus, she has actually trained with the England squad recently, so either Mark Sampson’s reading these match reports, or I should learn not to trust Wikipedia. Demi Stokes is my Player of the Match for this game, however, thanks to her solid defending, her energetic, overlapping runs, her brilliant crosses, and that assist. Well deserved.
Sunderland Ladies: Laws, Holmes, Bannon, Sharp (Potts 68), Williams (Beer 67), Staniforth, Chaplen, Furness, Ramshaw (Joice 46), Roche, Mead.
Unused subs: McDougall, Brown, Hill, Kelly.
Bookings: Holmes, Beer
City Women: Bardsley, Bronze, Houghton, McManus, Stokes, Beattie, Corboz (Stanway 61), Scott, Parris, Asllani (Duggan 74), Ross.
Unused subs: Hourihan, Tynan, Paul, Holland