FA Women’s Cup 4th Round
Manchester City 2 (Christiansen 45; Emslie 66)
For the second time in three months Brighton’s fast-developing team proved that they can live with the very best in English women’s football.
Having held then-unbeaten Chelsea to just 3-0 in the Continental Cup in November, they went one better against Nick Cushing’s all-conquering Manchester City with an impressive backs-to-the-wall defensive performance that once again had the opposition manager declaring his respect for the WSL2 debutants.
Not that Hope Powell’s competitive side ever looked like knocking the FA Women’s Cup holders out of the competition they won at Wembley last spring.
Theirs was very much a rearguard action.
But as against Chelsea, there was positivity, too, with Ini Umotong in particular testing City’s defence sporadically in an inspired second-half performance and Danielle Buet twice finishing off flowing attacking moves with off-target shots.
Had they managed to hold out to half-time – something few sides have managed against City this season – who knows what might have been?
But after riding their luck at times and throwing their bodies on the line frequently for 45 exacting minutes, Brighton finally capitulated on the stroke of the break when England international Izzy Christiansen capitalised on rare defensive lapses to fire the visitors ahead.
And after Umotong failed to put away the one chance she fashioned from her own brilliance shortly after the restart, it was evident there was to be no cup giant-killing at a packed and rocking Culver Road today.
But they restricted the current holders of all three domestic trophies to just one more goal – a fine effort from the extremely impressive Claire Emslie midway through the second half.
And it’s Manchester City who remain on course for an unprecedented second domestic clean-sweep – with the European Champions League still in their sights, too.
Cushing made four changes from the side whose 100% record was finally ended in Thursday night’s 0-0 draw at Chelsea.
Two were enforced – goalkeeper Karen Bardsley and City and England captain Steph Houghton both suffering serious injuries in the Chelsea game.
And two were through choice as current first-choice strike pair Nadia Nazim and Nikita Parris dropped to the bench to be replaced by Jane Ross and Emslie.
Ellie Roebuck, 18, who impressed after replacing Bardsley in goal early in the game against Chelsea, kept her place while Denmark’s Mie Jans stepped in for Houghton.
Brighton’s newest goalkeeper, Marie Hourihan, signed on loan from City last month, was not allowed to feature against her own club, so 21-year-old Chloe Sansom, returning from injury, made the bench as understudy to Lucy Gillett.
Chloe Peplow, another recent signing, was given her full debut as Powell opted to shore up midfield, with regular Kate Natkiel consigned to the bench.
It was Brighton who threatened first with a lovely flowing move down the left involving Fliss Gibbons, Kirsty Barton, Gibbons again and Sophie Perry, who found Umotong with her cross.
The Nigeria international striker laid the ball back to Buet, who shot just over, with barely two minutes played.
But City were soon into their stride, and when Melissa Lawley dispossessed Beth Roe and trundled into the area, it triggered a goalmouth scramble that Brighton somehow survived.
On nine minutes they earned the first of a string of free-kicks deep in Brighton territory, but Christiansen wasted the first – and probably best – by firing her shot from just outside the penalty area straight into the wall.
The midfielder was first to the rebound and sent over a cross which Jill Scott should probably have headed on target as Brighton’s defence went missing.
Jennifer Beattie was the next to try her luck, again allowed too much room in the Brighton box. But she headed straight at Gillett.
The Brighton goalkeeper was forced into a more demanding save in the 15th minute when, after Keira Walsh’s cross was headed out as far as Christiansen, the midfielder hammered the ball towards goal, only for Gillett to dive smartly to her left and hold on to the ball at full-stretch.
City were turning up the pressure and sending over a series of crosses from both flanks, but the home side were holding firm, albeit with little opportunity to show their worth at the other end of the pitch.
However, on 20 minutes, Powell’s side strung together another flowing move, from the right of midfield to the left wing, with Umotong, Barton, Gibbons and Perry all involved.
The Brighton captain’s superb cross was shielded well by Umotong, who, in a virtual copy of their earlier move, laid the ball back to Buet, who struck a fine volley narrowly over the bar from 22 yards.
It was just a brief interruption to the one-way traffic, though, and City looked certain to take the lead in the 27th minute when Christiansen collected a pass from Scott, turned Perry in the area and fired a low shot that was somehow kept out by the backtracking Roe.
That signalled an uncanny passage of play in which the teenage Brighton defender repelled the rampaging Manchester hordes almost single-handedly.
Firstly, on 28 minutes she cleared after a good interchange between Ross and Scott.
Then from the ensuing corner – the first of the game – she brilliantly blocked a goalbound effort.
Even Roe was helpless as City probed once again on 32 minutes, and it was only the woodwork that saved Brighton from going behind.
Christiansen found the excellent Emslie, now on the left-hand side, and the winger cut inside before curling a delicious shot on to the crossbar and behind for a goal-kick.
Scott tried a shot on the turn only to be denied by a terrific block by Laura Rafferty.
And then on 36 minutes Ross’s header was cleared off the line in another goalmouth scramble.
Just as it looked as though Brighton had weathered the first-half storm they fell behind after a rare lapse in an otherwise solid defensive display.
Ross’s shot was only half-cleared, but there looked to be several other opportunities to get the ball away before the ball fell to Christiansen, who finally managed to beat Gillett and put City ahead on the stroke of half-time.
Half-time: Brighton 0-1 Manchester City
It was a devastating blow for the home side, who had held out heroically for 45 minutes. With goalscoring opportunities at a premium, Christiansen’s goal must have felt like a mortal wound to Brighton’s hopes.
Yet after making two changes at the break, they came out fighting and very nearly grabbed a shock equaliser.
Substitute Amanda Nilden, who had replaced Gibbons at the break, set the tone, battling her way out of defence and shrugging off a couple of hefty challenges before finally being crowded out.
Then, with 50 minutes gone, Umotong produced one of those bits of inspiration that set her apart from most players in WSL 2.
Picking up the ball on halfway, she surged into Manchester City territory, bulldozing her way between Beattie and Abbie McManus and racing clear. But she pushed the ball slightly too far ahead of her and Roebuck, racing out of her goal, managed to push the striker’s effort away.
The otherwise under-employed Roebuck was called into action again in the 55th minute after Barton latched on to Umotong’s pass after the striker had turned superbly just outside the area.
Barton chose to shoot first-time from inside the box, but the diving Roebuck was equal to her effort.
Lawley’s outstanding run down the Brighton right two minutes later did not receive the ending it deserved when she cut inside and shot carelessly wide.
Then Umotong, enjoying a purple patch, turned Christiansen and raced forward before firing just over.
It was the last Brighton were to see of the ball in the City half for some time as the cup-holders, league champions and Continental Cup-winners of each of the last two seasons once again stepped up the pressure.
With City comfortable but not yet out of sight, Cushing made a double substitution on the hour, replacing Scott and Lawley with Nadim and Parris.
It took a fine tackle from Fern Whelan to thwart Nadim on 66 minutes, but seconds later City had doubled their lead.
The ever-dangerous Emslie was allowed far too much space down the right and as Perry belatedly approached her, the winger fired past Gillett from a narrow angle to make it 2-0.
Brighton seemed unable to learn from the experience, and although Jenna Legg, Brighton’s other half-time substitute, was tracking back to support Perry, Emslie was still enjoying far too much space down the Brighton left.
On 71 minutes, she won another corner after being awarded the freedom of the right touchline.
But she was finally halted on 73 minutes – by her own manager. Cushing granted her a well-earned rest, replacing her with Georgia Stanway, and McManus moved to the right flank.
And the replacement very nearly grabbed a third for City just two minutes later. She controlled Parris’s cross, turned smartly and curled a left-footed effort towards goal, but straight at Gillett.
Moments later, the in-form Nadim found McManus in space on the right. Her cross was met by Ross, but her header was too weak to trouble Gillett unduly.
Brighton made a slight tactical change as Aileen Whelan, who had hardly seen the ball all afternoon on the right wing, switched to the centre and Umotong moved out wide.
But it was largely academic, with the home side unable to hold on to the ball in advanced areas – though they did win their first two corners, in quick succession, on 82 minutes.
Back came City, though, and Ross shot wide from the edge of the area before the excellent Roe again came to Brighton’s rescue with a great tackle to halt Parris.
Umotong went off four minutes from time, to a big ovation from the crowd of more than 1,300. She was replaced by Natkiel, who took up an advanced role.
But she had little chance to even touch the ball as City played out the final couple of minutes in the Brighton half, Nadim almost making it three on 89 minutes when she wove her way through a couple of challenges, handing off Barton rugby-style, before her shot was deflected just round the post for City’s final corner.
This was Brighton versus Chelsea revisited. A team in form, unbeaten and with a squad more than capable of withstanding injuries paying a visit to an up-and-coming club in the throes of working their way through the divisions to English football’s top tier.
Once again, the WSL 2 club gave a good account of themselves, superbly organised by manager Hope Powell, and in Ini Umotong carrying a threat up front that meant City’s defenders could never quite afford to switch off.
As with Chelsea, the league leaders and cup holders deserved their victory – and looked perfectly comfortable. But – again as with Chelsea – they did not have it all their own way, and twice in the space of a few months, Brighton have proved themselves more than capable of living in such exalted company.
From my conversation with Powell after the game, though, it remains to be seen how many of her impressive squad are still there when they begin their WSL 1 adventure next autumn.
Hope Powell (Brighton): “We’re building something for the future”
“We knew that they would be technically probably better, faster, so we just had to set up very defensively, and we knew we were going to have to do a lot of leg work. And I think they did that very well.
“When you haven’t got the ball it takes more energy out of you. We’re chasing, then we get it, and then there’s a quick turnover and they get it and we’re defending again. It’s not just physically draining; it’s mentally draining.
“But I’m really pleased that the girls were disciplined [and] had a go. We had a chance to score… but [it was] a spirited effort. I think they can be lifted because of that – and we have to go again.
“I was hoping half-time would arrive, and I did say at half-time, ‘I think you can nick something’. And unfortunately, Ini – that one-on-one – was just a bit unfortunate.
“But I’m very proud.
“In terms of the way we lost [their previous game at Doncaster Rovers Belles]… the physicality of Doncaster was a little bit of a shock to our girls. But I think now they know what to expect. They won’t, perhaps, have as much time on the ball as perhaps they did in the lower leagues.
“It’s a different league – and then to have to step up again, it’s a different league again. So lots of lessons – great fun.
“They’re doing well. Obviously, we’re light on players. It’s for those players that are here to really push themselves on.
“We’ll go from a part-time side to a full-time side [when they join WSL 1 next season], which will help massively in terms of physical fitness, sustainability over 90 minutes against the best. So [there will be] lots of changes.
“We will bring new players in. We’re building something for the future.. But… the players that are currently there… are doing very, very well.”
Nick Cushing (Manchester City): “This team is getting better and better every week”
“I don’t think we expect to win. We always try and play to win, but we expect difficult games – especially this game. We knew that Brighton are a developing team. They’re a team that are in WSL 1 next year, so they’re well on their way to producing a really competitive team.
“We knew the game was going to be difficult, but we knew we’d have to be patient. And in the end, once we created opportunities, we knew that we would take them.
“We’ve played a lot against teams that try and reduce the space and play 11 players behind the ball. I suppose you have to suffer a little bit as a team when you’re trying to be expansive and create opportunities.
“But we’re getting better at being patient and recognising the moments. Today we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game, but we knew that to win the game we would have to be clinical in the moments that we created chances, and 2-0 for me shows that we won the game comfortably.
“It was as difficult [as City’s other games]. It was definitely at the level of a WSL 1 game, and that’s why Brighton are in [WSL 1] next year.
“They were well-organised and they sat really deep. And although they didn’t really trouble us – maybe one or two counter-attacks – they did restrict us from trying to get some rhythm and trying to create in dangerous areas.
“So it was difficult for us but this team is getting better and better every week at solving the problems, whatever the opposition do. And today they were really good at solving the problems.
“We have to create a training programme that makes sure that every player is ready, and the players are responsible for making sure that they’re ready. It is disappointing when you don’t get selected, but you never know when your next game is round the corner, and if you’re not ready, then you don’t take your opportunity.
“We have a competitive squad, and we have a small squad for that reason – we don’t want players to be sitting off the pitch for long periods. And we also play a lot of games. So all those things together mean you have to rotate, and players have to be ready.
“Then you get consistency in the performance.
“We don’t have any concrete information [on injured pair Karen Bardsley and Steph Houghton].
“We know that Karen hurt her upper arms and her shoulders. She’s feeling some pain still, but she’s back in Manchester.
“And Steph’s got a boot on and she’s still feeling some pain in her foot. But we’ve no concrete information on what it is or how long she will be out.
“At the moment we’re just trying to be positive, hoping to get the information as quickly as possible.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Claire Emslie (Manchester City 9/10)
Was she given too much space down the flanks – or did she create it herself? Emslie put on a masterclass of wing play, using skill, trickery, pace and precision to outwit a largely composed Brighton defence.
And she crowned a fine performance with an excellent goal, which finally killed off her opponents.
Melissa Lawley (7), Izzy Christiansen (7) and Jill Scott (7) were also key players as City played a patient game.
But they were very nearly thwarted, almost single-handedly, by the magnificent Beth Roe (8). The teenager, who signed her first professional contract only a fortnight ago, performed heroically in defence, standing up well to Lawley and Emslie and making a series of terrific blocks, including a goal-line clearance that almost defied the laws of science.
Ini Umotong (7) barely got a meaningful touch in the first 45 minutes but enjoyed an inspired second half, coming deep to collect the ball from a defence constantly under pressure, and using her pace and power to outmuscle and outfox top-class defenders, only to be let down by a slightly heavy touch as she bore down on goal.
Danni Buet (7) and Kirsty Barton (7) had fine games in the Brighton midfield – both were positive and Barton in particular was always looking for a constructive pass rather than panicked clearance.
Goalkeeper Lucy Gillett (7) performed well to keep City’s lethal strikers at bay, while second-half substitute Amanda Nilden (7) looks an excellent signing.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 There’s a big gulf between WSL 1’s top handful and the rest, but Brighton narrowed it more effectively than many have.