City Women (Ross 65) 1-1 Liverpool Ladies (White 4)
Competition: FA Women’s Super League 1
Venue: CFA Stadium, Etihad Campus (att: 2,172)
Date: 26 June 2016 (14:00)
With the WSL midsummer break over and done with, Blues fans and players alike were hoping that the team would return to match action in fine form, ready to resume their title challenge after the minor blip of losing their 100% record in the reverse fixture. Sadly, City heads were seemingly still on the beach, as the Blues started their eighth game of the season in disarray, taking all of four minutes to concede a league goal for the first time since October 2015.
To say this was a bad first 45 is putting it mildly, though initially, the signs were otherwise. Striker Toni Duggan was thwarted by Liverpool’s defence in the first minute, and a bumper CFA crowd, ably warmed up by the fantastic Every Colour Choir, began to expect the usual slick passing and increasing dominance that has characterised City’s 2016 so far. Except, Liverpool had other ideas. The Blues were unable to cope with Rosie White’s run through defence, and Karen Bardsley had to scoop the ball out of the net with less than four minutes gone. It was good play from Liverpool, but disappointing from the Blues’ perspective, with a usually watertight defence breached far too easily.
City responded with a bit of their own pressure, but were mainly left shell-shocked by the Merseysiders’ start, and their determination not to sit back and give the Blues too much respect. A Liverpool free-kick 30 yards out proved comfortable for Bardsley on 13 minutes, but despite a City corner soon after, the Blues still struggled to make headway. Duggan and Kosovare Asllani in particular seemed out of sorts, and not on one another’s wavelength, whilst City’s left side proved a real weak point, with full-back Demi Stokes perhaps drifting too far up the pitch. One of the joys of watching City Women is their ability to play from the back, and peddle an attacking brand of football, but against Liverpool City’s high line and overlaps just weren’t cutting it.
After narrowly escaping the repercussions of another sloppy moment in defence, City had a chance to equalise through Jennifer Beattie, the Scot having her shot blocked by Ingle. With half an hour of the match gone, the Blues had failed to come up with any more clear-cut chances, and were plainly labouring against a disciplined Liverpool side. van de Sanden in particular was a demon on the left, taking advantage of City’s high line and causing a few nervy Blue hearts to go into overdrive with her penetrating runs. On 32 minutes, the excellent Jane Ross – one of the few City players to impress in the first half – fired a dangerous cross into the Liverpool box, but frustratingly, no-one was there to connect. This frustration spread to the home crowd, who let their disappointment – and bewilderment – be known in no uncertain terms. Liverpool always looked the more likely to score, however, and Caroline Weir almost doubled the Reds’ advantage with less than ten minutes of the first half to go, hitting the crossbar after good build-up play from the improving Satara Murray.
City had a chance to go in all square with a corner just before half-time, but once more Liverpool’s defence proved resolute. All in all, Liverpool going into the break one up was the least the Reds deserved, and City could count themselves lucky in many ways that they weren’t facing a bigger deficit. Changes were certainly needed, after a disjointed, out-of-character performance, and manager Nick Cushing took immediate action, replacing American Daphne Corboz with new England international Nikita Parris at the start of the second half. Unfortunately, the second 45 began in just as much harum-scarum fashion as the first for City, with skipper Steph Houghton producing a vital block after less than a minute. The Blues’ captain had a chance to make herself even more of a hero soon after, lining up to take one of her trademark free-kicks, only to hit the wall.
The real catalyst in the second half will surprise no-one; why Parris, with all her pace, dynamism and vision didn’t start the game, we can only guess, but the Blues’ forward forced Liverpool goalie Siobhan Chamberlain into a fine save on 52. Her teammates seemingly inspired, Parris kick-started a series of City chances, with Duggan missing a gilt-edged opportunity to equalise two minutes later, placing her header over. Chamberlain was subsequently booked for time-wasting, much to the home fans’ delight. With the Blues beginning to truly knock on the door for the first time in the match, Cushing made his second sub of the afternoon, swapping Duggan for debutante and Netherlands midfielder Tessel Middag. Such a change worked, as only four minutes later, City final got on the scoresheet, Scotland striker Ross pouncing on a Parris cross. It wasn’t City’s finest goal ever scored, but they all count, and the crowd and team were lifted to another level, as the Blues scented blood and went for the winner.
With barely 20 minutes of normal time remaining, Middag had her chance of debut glory scuppered by Chamberlain. The Liverpool shot-stopper was called into action again immediately, prevently the move of the match from resulting in a City winner, with Middag once again involved. The midfielder’s excellent cross found Jill Scott, but the England international couldn’t beat Chamberlain. City continued to crank up the pressure as they searched for a winner, knowing that another draw would only give encouragement to the League’s chasing pack. Ross was denied a second on 84 minutes, only for Liverpool to go down the other end and threaten with a free-kick, Wier’s effort finding former Blue Natasha Harding, who could only volley over.
Megan Campbell became City’s third and final substitution on 88 minutes, and it was the Irish woman’s insane throw-ins which really helped spice up a frenetic end to the match. Seriously, if you haven’t seen them yet, check them out here. Needless to say, the City faithful, who by this time were roaring their side on superbly, were enthralled by Campbell’s set-piece work. Asllani – who, to be fair, had got more into proceedings as the game wore on – saw a shot sail wide, while Ross had yet another chance saved. Despite City throwing everything at Liverpool in the dying stages, the Reds held firm, and a draw was definitely a fair result, given the Merseysiders’ dogged game plan and swift counter-attacking. City’s unbeaten league run remains intact, though their goals against record is no longer.
Perhaps what is most pleasing about this result is how City salvaged something from such a dire first-half performance. That shows grit and nous, from both players and management. Liverpool’s combination of strong defensive work and pacy counter-attacking are obviously the way to play against us, and something we need to work to combat, lest other teams copy. It must be said, it was great to see Murray have such a good game for the Reds – the American defender had a difficult first season in England, but on this evidence was much improved. Indeed, if Liverpool continue to play with such strength and passion, then a decent mid-table finish is guaranteed.
Overall, City head into their next league game only two points ahead of main rivals Chelsea, with the Londoners having a game in hand. It’s hard not to see these two Lancashire derbies as resulting in four points dropped for the Blues, but every Championship-winning team needs to earn their success, and plough on through the tougher times. City next take on Notts County in the League, and will want to get back to winning ways at Meadow Lane. Their title challenge could well depend on it.
City Player of The Match: Beattie. The Scot had a decent game, but you do sometimes wonder how these awards are decided. Drawn out of a hat, perhaps?
My Player of The Match: Ross. She was City’s best player in the first half by a country mile, seemingly the only one at times to really get stuck in. Scoring the equaliser helps her cause, of course, and on another day she’d have bagged the winner, too. Honourable mentions to Parris (as ever, though she really helped change the game) and Houghton. There were a couple of hairy moments for the skipper, but she led by example.
City Women (4-3-3): Bardsley, Bronze, Houghton (c), McManus (Campbell 88), Stokes, Beattie, Scott, Corboz (Parris 46), Asllani, Duggan (Middag 60), Ross
Unused subs: Hourihan, Stanway, Toone
Liverpool Ladies (4-4-2): Chamberlain, Bonner (c), Longhurst, Ingle, Greenwood, Murray, White, Weir, Coombs (Zelem 81), Harding (Charles 90), van de Sanden (Lundh 74)
Unused subs: Gibbons, Hodson, van den Berg, Harris
Bookings: Chamberlain, Zelem