Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Familiarity breeds success to give Blues slender lead

Debutant Remi Allen’s first half strike gave Blues Ladies a 1-0 lead going into Sunday’s second leg of their Champions League Quarter Final tie against Arsenal. In front of a crowd of over 2,500 at St Andrews, the hosts displayed outstanding character and spirit in the face of a team full of experienced internationals.

Blues set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as expected. The front six players picked themselves: Potter and Moore sat in the holding position in front of the back 4, with new signing Allen being the player given the licence to push forward to support lone striker Linnett. Newly appointed Captian Carney and Lawley offered the side width throughout the game and stretched the pitch as much as possible, whilst tracking back to assist their full backs.
The main selection questions marks came in defence, and boss David Parker bravely opted to throw sixteen year old Jess Carter in at left back for her first team debut. The ever reliable Weston patrolled the right back slot, with Mannion and Harrop the two centre backs.
Arsenal picked a strong line up considering the player exodus during pre-season. New signing Chamblerlain had to settle for a place on the bench as Byrne kept goal. A new back four of Scott, Stoney, Kinga and Mitchell were shadowed by youngster Jade Bailey.
The front five players interchanged throughout the match. Yankey and Dan Carter found themselves up against the full backs regularly, while Smith, Ohno and Weir tried to make the most of the central areas, moving into the gaps between midfield and defence.

Arsenal forced Blues into a few nervy moments early in the match, as the young defenders tried to find their feet, but gradually they became more comfortable and the home side gained control of the match. An early Potter free kick went just wide, and after Byrne spilt a Weston cross from the right, Lawley should have opened the scoring, but blazed the dropping ball just over from inside the area. Linnett was causing Stoney and Kinga all sorts of problems, and Allen was pushed further forward to assist her teammate, and following another burst forward from the former Gunner, Allen’s shot was gathered comfortably, but it was another Weston cross that created the only goal of the game. Carney laid the ball back for the England U23 international, and her cross was hooked in by Allen. Linnett had another shot cleared off the line as Blues went into the break a goal to the good.

The second half became a war of attrition, as Arsenal’s front five began to impose themselves onto the game. Whilst possession stats are unavailable, I would suggest that Arsenal had the majority during the second half, but the midfield trio of Moore, Potter and Allen worked tirelessly to prevent Arsenal’s playmakers to create any clear cut goal scoring opportunities. It seemed wherever Smith ventured, Potter followed. If any midfield outfights Blues this season, then they will certainly feel it the next day. Given that this was the first competitive match since the 5-2 victory over Zorky four months ago, the energy shown by Blues was tremendous, and the fact the vast majority of the team have either played together or know each other very well was invaluable in the battle against the Londoners. Yankey was replaced by another of the young Arsenal reserves Freda Ayisi, while Blues looked to close the game out by bringing on Simpkins, usually a defensively minded midfielder, to play up top, replacing the impressive Linnett with ten minutes remaining. Japanese World Cup winner Ohno had the best two chances of the second half, firstly being denied by a tremendous block tackle by Mannion, and late on firing over when well placed in the area.

The player of the match was fully deservedly awarded to Jess Carter. For a sixteen year old debutant, she showed nerves of steel up against Carter and Scott on the Arsenal right hand side, and for her not to look out of place was testament to how well she performed on the biggest stage Blues have ever performed on. There is a very bright future ahead for the youngster, already making waves in the England U19 squad, and after shining against Arsenal she has proven herself capable of playing in the big games. Kudos must go to Parker for her giving her the chance to play, and she took full advantage of her opportunity.

So Blues go into the second leg not only with a lead, but with an all-important home clean sheet, meaning if they were to score at The Hive on Sunday, Arsenal would need three to progress to a semi-final showdown with Swedish outfit Tyreso.
Looking at the respective benches during the first leg, I would not expect many changes to be made for the reverse tie, and if Blues can match the effort and commitment shown during Monday night’s game, they will give themselves a great chance of making even more history and find themselves in the last four of the competition.

Blues: Spencer, Weston, Mannion, Harrop, Carter, Potter, Moore, Allen, Carney (c), Lawley, Linnett (Simpkins 79). Subs not used: Baggaley, Sargeant, Keryakoplis, Wilkinson, Torkildsen, Haines

Arsenal: Byrne, Scott, Stoney, Kinga, Mitchell, Bailey, Weir, Ohno, Carter, Smith (c), Yankey (Ayisi 76). Subs not used: Chamberlain, Hoogendijk, Williamson, Bragg, Sampson, Humphrey

Attendance: 2,671

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