Following Reading’s narrow 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester City in their last WSL1 game this was a chance to see if they could go one better up in Manchester in the bizarrely scheduled reverse fixture. SPOILER ALERT – no, they couldn’t. But we’ll come to that part later!
For now I’ll bleat on for a while about how lovely the setup is at Manchester City, because it really is everything good about women’s football in one place! Set just a few metres away from the Etihad Stadium, the Academy stadium is a gorgeous purpose-built venue that accommodates the women’s matches and men’s academy matches and itself seats an impressive 7000 supporters, with a shed load of car parking (albeit a decent stroll away), a lovely pitch and a feeling that the whole club is jointly focused on the men’s and women’s teams rather than the women’s feeling tacked on like at some other clubs where the stadium is miles away from the town the team are from.
As a model for a perfect women’s football setup it’s a pretty good one! To top it all off, there’s also FREE parking and a FREE match day programme and today was a double-header with the men’s game so you got free entry if you were attending the men’s game afterwards. It’s like they actually want people to come to the matches, which in part explained why there were just under 2000 people here today!
On to the game itself and as we’ve come to expect in recent weeks there were a few unexpected team selections on display – central midfielder Lois Roche was dropped to the bench after playing very well in the last match and was replaced in central midfield by central defender Molly Bartrip.
Out of the plethora of central midfield pairings that I had considered, Molly alongside Remi Allen wasn’t one of them! I guess that’s why I’m just a supporter and not a WSL1 manager!
Arguably our best and most creative central midfielder Rachel Rowe again started on the right wing leaving 3 excellent wide players on the bench and the legendary, almost mythical Harriet Scott finally returned to the starting line-up after an absence akin to the first time Robbie Williams left Take That.
Kylie Davies also returned to the team in place of Kayleigh Hines.
Once we’d all checked and double checked that Molly was indeed playing in midfield, the formation became clearer and was actually the normal one, mostly resembling a 4-4-1-1 with Jade Boho-Sayo up top on her own again, supported by Lauren, Emma and Rachel where possible.
SPOILER ALERT 2 – it wasn’t often possible. However, against the cream of the cream in WSL1 the formation made sense with the assumed aim of keeping it tight for the first hour and breaking where possible on the counter.
From the outset it was clear that the Royals had been practising their passing around the back line during the recent break.
At every given opportunity Mary Earps, Kirsty McGee and Kylie Davies were passing the ball between themselves like a foot-based game of pass-the-parcel. Quite often it looked really smooth and gave us the opportunity to build possession. On a few occasions it looked a little forced and tense and still resulted in a long ball forward from Mary, but it will get more natural as the games go by and hopefully form the basis of some nice flowing football. Time will tell!
City, as expected, were quick and firm in their challenges and Reading had pretty much no opportunity to dwell on the ball once it hit the opposition half. I mentioned in the preview that the battle on the flanks would be worth paying attention to and unfortunately today both City full backs were on top form, limiting our wide play significantly. Emma Follis made lots of runs as usual but was generally well shepherded when she reached the final third.
City dominated the early encounters with 4 shots in the first ten minutes, the most promising from Daphne Corboz and Jane Ross, who both hit the bar.
But Reading held firm with some solid defending, lots of effort and a stroke of good fortune and could have had a penalty when Rachel Rowe was sent tumbling in the box. The referee adjudged it to be shoulder to shoulder and Reading didn’t really create anything else of note in the first half after that unfortunately – any sniff of a break was squashed by the pretty much impeccable City defence, including the likes of Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze – possibly the two stars of the England Lionesses.
For all of City’s pressure they could do nothing to break through Reading’s own mean defence in the first half and the Royals’ hard work was rewarded by a 0-0 scoreline at half time.
For all of The Academy Stadium’s many and varied high points, its big drawback turned out to be the food stall, where service was as slow as a particularly nonchalant, partially sighted snail, wading through particularly sticky treacle.
Once we had finally reached the front of the queue the person in front had been told that the special WSL food deal advertised on the front of the stall wasn’t available today, despite the adverts and the fact it was a WSL1 game. After some minor moaning the manager strolled in to confirm that the offer was definitely on and that the staff just didn’t know about it!
Meal deal baguette finally in hand I strolled back towards my seat only to see Toni Duggan crossing a free kick to a pretty unmarked Beattie in the box who headed calmly home to give City the lead.
Manchester City Ladies 1 Reading 0
After such a hard fought first half it was a really disappointing start to the second half with City looking like they had come out fired up and desperate for the win and Reading looking like they hadn’t come out at all! But with 42 minutes still to get something from the game we hoped that Reading would change gears and go on the offensive and give the fans something to get excited about to make the 8 hour round trip more enjoyable.
Unfortunately Reading’s Plan B looked suspiciously like their Plan A! To the trained footballing eye I’m sure there were subtle tactical changes aimed at getting us back in the game but from a fan’s perspective it looked like more of the same – keep it tight and break if possible.
Unfortunately it still wasn’t really possible and at 1-0 down the second half had an air of inevitability about it. It looked as though we would need to change things in order to give it a good go, but the only change came when Melissa Fletcher came on for Jade Boho-Sayo on 68 minutes and played in exactly the same role, looking every bit as isolated as Jade had, always up against at least 2 world class defenders and with her back to goal.
The game was firmly in City’s favour and they should have gone further in front with efforts from Jill Scott and Steph Houghton. It was put out of reach though by Houghton on 87 minutes following a soft free kick on the edge of the box. Reading spent a good few minutes ensuring the wall was up to the task but despite Mary Earps’ voice being audible across the whole of Manchester and surrounding towns, the wall was fairly comfortably bypassed by Houghton’s curling shot into the side of the goal.
Manchester City Ladies 2 Reading FC Women 0
In a game where I can’t recall Reading having any shot on, off, or remotely near the target, City, with their 21 shots ran out deserved winners and temporarily extended their lead at the top of WSL1. They were top quality across the park and Reading did well to keep the score to 2-0. Although tactically Reading stuck to their game plan very well in the first half, once the first goal had gone in there seemed little chance of the Royals creating anything against the best defence in women’s football in the second half and it wasn’t particularly thrilling to watch unfortunately.
Aside from Melissa Fletcher the Royals bench remained spectators throughout despite us never looking like creating any chances with the formation we were playing. With Helen Ward spending another 90 minutes sitting down despite her hat trick against Portsmouth and with Lois Roche also not contributing despite being our best set piece taker in a game you could only see us scoring from a set piece, it was hard to see where an equaliser was going to come from.
Having said that, the players all deserve a lot of credit for giving an excellent City side a really good test and there were some quality performances – Molly Bartrip and Kylie Davies were both very good and Harriet Scott, 50% human, 50% machine, 100% legend, was outstanding on her unexpected return to the side. Hopefully she won’t pull off another Dynamo-esque vanishing act next week, never to be seen again!
Although the team and staff left the pitch hurriedly at the final whistle without acknowledging the fans that had travelled half the country to see them, it was great to see a magnificent seven making their way across the pitch a bit later on (after we’d already been asked to leave 4 times!) to pass on their thanks and send us back on the road with renewed enthusiasm. It is those small gestures that actually mean the most.
Next up is Liverpool at home on Thursday and another chance to throw the kitchen sink at a game to finally pick up 3 points! It feels like everyone deserves a win by now, so hopefully we can pack our team out with potential match winners from the start and give it a good go.