Despite the 2-0 loss in the FA Cup to Southampton FC Women last weekend, the lasses returned to league action in what was an important game to keep pace with teams surrounding them.
Adrenaline courses through my veins as I write this, riding on the high that Sunderland AFC Women have provided with their brilliant 3-0 win over Sheffield United Women in the league this afternoon.
Sunderland has had a brilliant start to their 23/24 league campaign, putting in emphatic and commendable performances against top sides prior to the Christmas break. However, the lasses had lost their last two competitive games and failed to score. While no one was hitting panic buttons, it was a topic and situation that needed to be addressed.
In her pre-match interview with the press and media, gaffer Mel Reay stated that experimentation and changes were to be expected to score goals and win games. The announced squad today demonstrates just that, with forward Liz Ejupi coming out of the lineup for Emily Scarr, and the suspended Jenna Dear being replaced by Ellen Jones.
The lasses fielded their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with Mollie Rouse sitting in defensive midfield alongside Natasha Fenton. Ellen Jones moved out to the left wing to allow Katie Kitching to revert to her number 10 spot, and Emily Scarr played up front as the lone striker.
The game started with Sunderland appearing quite nervous against their opposition, not pressing them as high as usual. The Blades held the majority of possession and looked dangerous in the opening 5-10 minutes, especially when captain Brianna Westrup received a yellow card within six minutes for pulling a Sheffield player down as she was bearing through on goal. Fortunately, the opportunity wasn’t enough for her to see red for a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.
From there, however, the ascendancy began to swing in Sunderland’s favor, and the lasses had two big chances to take the lead. The first through Ellen Jones, who put her shot just wide, and then moments later through Mary McAteer, whose shot was expertly blocked.
Natasha Fenton had a go herself just minutes later from distance, but the Sheffield keeper was equal to the shot. The lasses continued their press and threat going forward, and once again, they had the opportunity to go a goal up in the 19th minute, this time via Katie Kitching, who hit the ball first time towards goal, only for the keeper to again make a brilliant save to keep the scores level.
Sunderland played with confidence, and it became a matter of when and not if they would score. The front four of Jones, Kitching, McAteer, and Scarr played phenomenal football, with lovely one-touch intricate passing among themselves and between the Blades’ backline.
In the 27th minute, McAteer did wonderfully down the right side, dribbling past the opposition and keeping the ball before sending in a brilliant cross for Ellen Jones. However, Stenson was there yet again in the Sheffield goal to keep her side in it.
The lasses continued to look dangerous and harass the Sheffield defensive line just as the game was heading into the final minutes of the first half. Moments before, Rouse put her headed attempt just wide of the post. A goal before the break would’ve been a huge confidence boost and elation to the team, and it appeared that they had just that in the final seconds of the half as Ellen Jones fired the ball into the net. However, it was ruled offside by the linesman, in what was seen as the incorrect decision by home fans.
The second half started positively as Sunderland aimed to continue their momentum and press Sheffield back. Other than the opening minutes of the first half, the Blades had yet to appear dangerous or have any chances on goal.
In the 47th minute, Fenton fired one towards goal from distance, only missing the bottom corner of the net by inches.
The constant press and chances created by Sunderland were about to pay dividends. In the 55th minute, Ellen Jones was quick to react when she intercepted a clearance, drove forward towards goal, and expertly placed her shot home, out of the keeper’s reach, giving the lasses a 1-0 lead!
The breaks were off, and you could visibly see how much the goal meant to the team as they celebrated. Their heads were raised, and the belief was palpable that they could score more and win this game.
And we didn’t have to wait long! Just minutes later, in the 58th minute, Katie Kitching’s cross fell to Scarr in the box, and her first-time effort found the bottom corner to everyone’s jubilation. The forward hasn’t seen much game time this season in the league but was duly rewarding the manager’s faith in her by making it 2-0.
As the game neared the final 20 minutes, Sunderland made their first change of the afternoon in the 68th minute, bringing Libbi McInnes on for Katie Kitching. Another player given the nod of faith from the manager despite limited game time. Before two further substitutions were made with Ellen Jones and Mary McAteer making way for more young guns in the form of Katy Watson and Mary Corbyn, who instantaneously injected pace and energy into the team.
For the first time in the match, lasses goalkeeper Claudia Moan was called into action when she made a phenomenal save to deny what was a certain Sheffield goal. She dove to her right, just tipping the ball onto the post and out of danger.
Yet, despite the opportunity, Sunderland sealed the game off when Scarr got her brace in the 84th minute after Katy Watson made a brilliant run and held the ball up long enough to lay it off for her teammate to fire into the net.
With the game nearing the final stage, Sunderland were content to keep the ball in the opposition half and take it to the corner flag, much to Sheffield’s chagrin. The Blades picked up two or three yellow cards in frustration.
Credit to the opposition, though, as they didn’t give up and were still trying to catch Sunderland out with inviting balls over the top and down the right wing. However, the defense stood resolute, alongside Moan making more reaction saves to close down the threat, ensuring the game finished Sunderland AFC Women 3-0 Sheffield United Women.
The result means that not only have Sunderland scored three, kept a clean sheet, and obtained three points, but they now currently sit second in the division, only one point off the top.
This is exactly the result the lasses needed to reinstall confidence in the squad. The performances and opportunities have been there in the last couple of matches, but they have just lacked that clinical edge to their game to make the pressure pay off.
Credit has to go to the management team for experimenting with the squad and making changes where needed to ensure the win. They have been rewarded with that decision, with Jones bagging a goal in her first league start in a while and Scarr grabbing a brace in her first league start of the season. Bringing on Corbyn and McInnes, who have usually only participated in cup games for some minutes, also showed their skill and caliber when provided the opportunity.
It was an emphatic performance all around, and one that Sunderland can be incredibly proud of as they look to keep pace with the teams surrounding them in the league and try to grasp that top spot.
With games coming thick and fast, I hope this result inspires and reinforces to the team just how well they are doing and how well they can play. They can be as good as any team in this division on their day.
Sunderland will now turn their attention to a midweek Conti Cup game against Aston Villa on Wednesday, where a win will see them progress into the final stages of the competition, before hitting the road on Saturday as they travel to Blackburn Rovers in what is another important league game.
What a performance! What a team! Haway the lasses!