It was always going to be a tough match and one which would force me to put the lottery on, had we won.
But despite the result and exiting the Conti Cup, I can’t help but feel anything but pride at that Sunderland women’s performance last night.
A star-studded Chelsea team with a plethora of individuals who have over 100 caps for their respective nations, domestic and international titles. I’ve seen some comments say that Chelsea’s lineup was a second team.
Well, this ‘second team’ played and won 4-0 against Paris FC in the Champions League. So given the stark contrast between Champions League and Championship. Losing 5-0 to the current league leaders and two-time winners of this tournament is nothing to be ashamed of.
In fact, if you were there or watching, you would have seen just how well Sunderland played against the Blues - particularly in the second half.
Sunderland has become a side in the Championship which presses, harries, harasses, and attacks the opposition. Yet, as Mel Reay mentioned in her post-match interview with the club. We had to respect the opponents and know how to set up.
Of course, I would have loved to have seen us take the game to Chelsea, and we did to a certain extent in the second half. But if the lasses were to throw caution completely to the wind, we absolutely would have found ourselves on the receiving end of a heavy defeat. So the lasses choosing the lineup, formation, and tactics that they did, was in everyone’s best interests.
We have to remember that Chelsea is a team that currently sits 1st in the Women’s Super League; they’ve amassed over 28 trophies in their history and are arguably the best women’s football team in the world. Their lineup was frightening, but looking at their subs bench compared to our own was a stark reminder of the gulf between WSL and Championship sides. Guru Reiten, Lauren James, and Mayra Rodrigues - the world’s most expensive women’s football signing - just to name a few. Whereas besides goalkeeper Megan Borthwick, who is 26, all of Sunderland’s bench were 21 or younger. Including two 16-year-olds in Niamh Boothroyd and Ella West.
The Blues are a full-time professional outfit with a wonder of resources, finances, and facilities which they use to their full advantage. The lasses, on the other hand, are still a hybrid model team with players in the squad who work full time as firefighters and internship program managers for the Princes Trust. We don’t have the money to bring in star names, so we utilize our regional talent centre and U23’s team to develop the new crop of wonderkids. As well as unearthing real gems from ‘lesser-known’ teams.
Sunderland adopted a defensive formation, with a 5-3-1-1 system. Claudia Moan in goal, with a back five of Grace Ede, Grace McCatty, Amy Goddard, Brianna Westrup, and Jessica Brown. Brown and Ede acting as wing-backs. Whereas the midfield consisted of Jenna Dear, Mollie Rouse, and Natasha Fenton, with Liz Ejupi occupying the ten or false nine in this instance and Emily Scarr up top.
The first ten minutes of the match started with Chelsea in the ascendancy. Straight out from the blocks, the Blues were ruthless and barely allowed Sunderland out of their own half as they flanked down the wings and whipped in dangerous crosses and cutbacks.
Chelsea had numerous opportunities early on to score, but many of their shots were sent high and flying over the crossbar or wide of the post. Causing Moan no cause for concern. However, the danger and intent were there, and the lasses needed to regain their composure to hold onto the ball and attempt to play the simple passing game.
Too many times in the first half, the lasses had possession, but would gift it straight back to Chelsea who would look to exploit Sunderland right away. Simply put, if Sunderland could keep the ball, it meant Chelsea didn’t have it. Thankfully this became much better in the second half - but I digress.
Chelsea’s Mia Fishel had two good chances to open the scoring, and Périsset hit a shot goalwards in the 8th minute, but it was relatively tame for Moan to deal with.
The lasses had their opportunity after some good passing build-up allowed Liz Ejupi to break clear of the defensive backline and play the ball across to the onrushing Jenna Dear. But unfortunately, the pass was just cut out.
After that, there was an eight-minute break in play after the assistant referee on the far side of the pitch went down and was provided treatment. It’s still unclear as to what happened. In my periphery, she looked to have gone over on her ankle. But given the extensive length of treatment being provided, we did not want to speculate. Thankfully, she was back on her feet and smiling minutes later and was brought off clutching her left arm/shoulder. The tannoy sent out a desperate plea for anyone who was a qualified FA official to make themselves known, as the fourth official filled in for the injured lineswoman.
Despite the break in play, both teams very swiftly got back into action and rhythm, with Sunderland seemingly more composed after having a few minutes to chat with the gaffer.
With 20 minutes on the clock, Natasha Fenton whipped in a deep corner which reached Dear at the back post and who subsequently knocked it back across to Brianna Westrup, but her header went just over the crossbar. Though did seemingly cause Mušović in the Chelsea goal to panic for a brief moment.
However, Chelsea soon got back to their attacking way and were awarded for their efforts in the 27th minute when 23-year-old German international Sjoeke Nüsken got her first of the evening from a header. Fran Kirby did brilliantly down the right wing to knock in a pinpoint cross, and Nüsken was on hand to head it past Moan to make it 1-0.
Conceding the goal seemed to wake the lasses up, and they then started to play more expansive football, particularly down the right wing. Emily Scarr, Jenna Dear, and Liz Ejupi linking up well, but still unable to test the Blues keeper.
Being 1-0 down at half time was nothing to be ashamed of, and Sunderland almost appeared to have done exactly that. However, just before the referee blew her whistle to signal half time, Nüsken once again rose the highest in the box to head it into the Sunderland goal, having had plenty of time to weigh up her shot.
Though it was a shame for Sunderland to be 2-0 down at the break, again it wasn’t something that they should have been disheartened about. And whilst many of us, weren’t optimistic of our chances prior to the game, there was still a feeling that Sunderland could still give a good account of themselves and possibly bag at least a goal.
For the very first 40-50 seconds of the second half, Sunderland reappeared with renewed vigour. Pressing Chelsea’s defence and looking to get forward. Yet similarly and disappointingly like the Aston Villa game a few weeks ago. The lasses conceded within a minute of the game restarting. A real big blow to their confidence and match plan after the break.
This time it was Aggie Beever-Jones who got onto the scoresheet after running with the ball down the right wing and forced Grace Ede to retreat, retreat and retreat towards the byline. The winger had the pace, technical ability, and power to fire it into the net at the near post, leaving Moan once again no chance of saving and making it 3-0 to the hosts.
But to Sunderland’s credit, they did not allow their heads to drop, and following on from Chelsea’s third, they began their best period of play. Right the way through to the 80th minute.
Jenna Dear arguably had the biggest and best chance of the game when she fired off a venomous shot from just outside the box which looked destined to beat Mušović. But the Swedish keeper did brilliantly to back track and just about tip it over the crossbar.
In the 51st minute, Emily Scarr did well out on the right wing to run past the Chelsea backline. The winger crossed the ball into the box, looking to find Grace Ede, but the left-back just couldn’t get her shot off.
Minutes later it was Mollie Rouse’s turn to test Mušović in goal. She arguably could have looked to find a teammate instead of taking on the shot, as her attempt was straight at the Chelsea keeper and easy for her to deal with.
It was in the 60th minute that Sunderland really began to up the ante when Mary McAteer was brought on for Grace Ede, with Emily Scarr slotting in at left-wing-back.
McAteer made an instant impact from the bench and injected some much-needed energy and exuberance from the bench. The Welsh midfielder international was fearless and more than happy to press at the Chelsea defenders and was successful on numerous occasions at dispossessing them of the ball and breaking through on goal.
Just minutes after coming on, McAteer broke through the Chelsea backline down the right flank and did well to cut the ball back into the box, but her ball was played just in behind the onrushing Dear and Chelsea was able to cut the pass out before Dear could swing.
For the next 15 minutes, Sunderland was playing some lovely football. Despite Chelsea having the majority of possession, the lasses’ defence stood strong and resolute, sniffing out any Chelsea attacks before they could amount to anything. Whereas McAteer and Dear were making positive nuances of themselves at the other end of the pitch.
Emily Scarr had the opportunity to get a consolation goal for Sunderland when she hit the ball on the volley just inside the box, but her shot went wide.
With the game nearing its conclusion, Sunderland opted to bring off the carded Natasha Fenton for Ellen Jones. Again making an offensive-minded change and illustrating that the lasses were indeed still going for it in this game.
Even at 3-0 down and the clock entering into the 80th minute, Sunderland still never gave up and continued to push Chelsea back at any opportunity.
However, just as the lasses were getting into a positive rhythm, Chelsea went and added to their tally and made it 4-0 in the 81st minute.
Maika Hamano, who had a fantastic game for Chelsea on her debut, tricked and weaved her way to the left wing, carrying the ball to the byline before chipping it towards Fran Kirby at the near post to head past Moan.
Sunderland made two final changes for the evening, bringing on Libbi McInnes and Katy Watson for Mollie Rouse and Liz Ejupi. While the two youngsters came on and added some youthful exuberance and pace. It was always going to be a tough ask to have the two starlets come on and change the dynamic of the game. That being said, they did have an instant impact and were quick to join the fray.
There was a concern with Sunderland conceding the fourth goal, that they would capitulate and concede another, and unfortunately that came to fruition in the 90th minute. Fran Kirby netting her brace and breaking Sunderland hearts as the game ended 5-0 to the hosts just two minutes later.
This game was always a David v Goliath meeting. A full-time team v hybrid team. A Women’s Super League team v a Championship team. Mel Reay, her staff, and team made no qualms about that and went into this fixture knowing fine well that it would be an unprecedented miracle to get a result against the two-time cup champions. However, they still wanted to show their grit, tenacity, and fight.
And they did exactly that. I’m nothing but proud of that Sunderland performance. I know the players and the coaching staff may be disappointed with the way in which we conceded some of the goals, particularly with three coming from headers. We pride ourselves on our resolute defence and not conceding from aerial duels. However, it once again needs to be reiterated just the calibre of this Chelsea side and the experience that they have.
Sunderland may have exited the Conti Cup, but there is still so much left to play for this season. The lasses sit 2nd in the league, one point off Charlton in the top spot, and with seven games left of the season, including three against other title contenders, it is probably for the best that Sunderland only has the league to focus on now.
Their next game is on Sunday 18th February against Lewes FC at home, and hope to see many of you there backing this incredible team!
Ha way the lasses!