Sunday, 29 May 2016

Relegation certs to Story of the Season?

Karen Carney and Becky Spencer to Chelsea. Chelsea Weston released, subsequently joining Notts County. Speculation rife surrounding other key members of the squad. Only signing (Corina Schroeder) injured and missing the first period of the season. Quite simply, the perfect ammunition for pundits and experts of women's football to dismiss Blues Ladies as the red hot favourites to fill the one relegation spot in this years WSL1. However, upon reaching the mid season interval in the top tier of women's football, having played seven of their sixteen league games, David Parker's young troops find themselves sitting very pretty indeed in third place, three points clear of big spending Liverpool, and a comfortable eleven points clear of Doncaster who, despite only playing three games, remain pointless on their return to the top flight. So how have Blues defied all the odds yet again to find themselves challenging at the top end of the table?

Despite the changes over the course of Blues' WSL era, the main strength of whoever has been part of the team remains the incredible determination and fight shown in every minute of every game. Though the funds may not be there to splash out on superstar names in attempts to succeed, Blues seem to thrive on the fact that there is a footballing purity behind their pushes for trophies, and once again this season they have shown they are among the toughest group of players in the game. Defensively, behind Manchester City, Blues have the best record in the league, only conceding four goals from their seven games played, two of those coming in the early season defeat to the title favourites. Sophie Baggaley has replaced Spencer in goal, and the young England stopper has produced a number of eye-catching performances to keep an impressive four clean sheets in a row, including the double wins over Notts and away to Arsenal. In front of her, the coaching staff must take a lot of credit for the switch to the 5-3-2 system that has been adopted for this season. 

With Aoife Mannion, Jess Carter and captain Emily Westwood being the mainstays in a predominant back three, and Kerys Harrop and Abbey Stringer adopting wide wing back roles, teams have found it difficult to create too many clear cut chances and break through that solid back line, especially given the shield that the likes of Jo Potter, Jade Moore and Remi Allen have provided them with, not to mention the breakthrough spell of Chloe Peplow, who has looked every bit the starlet that has won her recognition from international selectors at under age level, and for me has been one of the brightest points from the season so far. The alteration in system has not just made Blues stronger at the back, but it has also allowed the team to be more of a threat going forward, especially on the counter attack.

Although they have only scored four league goals, this certainly hasn't been through want of trying. In the 2-1 home win over Doncaster Belles, they racked up double figures' worth of attempts in the first half alone, and in soaking up opponents' pressure, they have become a very dangerous side on the counter attack, with Mel Lawley, Freda Ayisi and Charlie Wellings working hard and running defenders ragged to allow the team to break directly and quickly. When you consider the club have had their bad luck with injuries this season, with Moore and Allen only having just returned to full fitness, and the likes of Kirsty Linnett, Coral Haines and Schroeder having missed the vast majority of the first half of the season, the performances of the team are even more impressive than the numbers suggest. 

German international striker Isabella Linden has joined from Frauen-Bundesliga giants Frankfurt to attempt to boost the goals tally, and her international compatriot Marisa Evers has also moved to Solihull from Bayer Leverkusen to bolster the back line, in what the club will hope brings an added steel and international experience to a talented group of young players. These signings have highlighted the intent within the club to push Blues on further, and from a fans perspective, not only is it exciting that quality European players want to come and play for Blues, there is the hope that these sorts of signings can persuade star players that the future is bright at Solihull. There is plenty to be positive about as we enter the mid season interval, compared to last year where the fans' only aspiration was to avoid relegation. Blues face an away trip to WSL2 side Oxford in the Continental Cup, which has been reinvented into a straight knockout tournament this year, a change from the group stages in previous seasons, and it is traditionally a competition Blues have done well in over the years. Realistically, the squads and facilities Manchester City and Chelsea have available to them, along with the starts both sides have made in the league this season, means it would be incredible tough going for any other club to break into the top two and achieve a Champions League place, but if Blues were to finish in the top half of the WSL, it would leave egg on an awful lot of faces in the world of women's football, and establish them once again as a side to be reckoned with. It will no doubt be a long month of June for Blues fans, as the summer transfer window opens, but for now the optimism around the Midlands is at a scale not felt since the final day of the 2014 season. 

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