Brighton (0) 0
Manchester City (2) 6 (Stanway 21, 63, 67; Weir 41; Parris 87; Emslie 90)
Super-slick Manchester City put on a commanding display to keep in touch with runaway leaders Arsenal at the top of the FA Women’s Super League and once again demonstrate to newly elevated Brighton how far they still have to go.
Teenage starlet Georgia Stanway gave Hope Powell’s strikers a lesson in how to finish, clinically dispatching three of her handful of chances while Brighton were left ruing their missed opportunities at the other end which might at least have earned them a more respectable scoreline.
The 2016 champions were 2-0 up at the break and threatening a hatful more as Brighton struggled to contain their slick passing and movement which threatened a goal with every attack.
In the end, as Powell’s willing runners – sapped of energy after chasing shadows – tired, City did indeed go on a scoring spree.
But that was an unfair reflection of the home side’s second-half show, during which they created a number of chances and genuinely unsettled City’s otherwise oh-so-comfortable defence with their pace and aggression.
Half-time substitute Ini Umotong was a major part of that rejuvenation, as was the admirable Ellie Brazil – another 19-year-old and one of Brighton’s most consistent performers in recent weeks – who belied her slight stature with a performance of energy and power in which she regularly outmuscled City’s even younger left-back, Esme Morgan, down the right flank.
City were odds-on to achieve the win they needed to stay in touch with Arsenal’s 100-percenters at the top of the WSL.
But they were given an early moment of discomfort when, with just five minutes gone, the energetic Brazil intercepted a loose pass and made good ground before finding Kayleigh Green. The striker laid the ball back to Kirsty Barton, best part of 40 yards out, whose clever chip sailed just over the bar and on to the roof of the net.
The home team also won the game’s first corner, two minutes later, but that was as good as it got for them in the first half as City stepped up the pressure and Brighton struggled to cope.
Nikita Parris had a chance to put City ahead on 11 minutes, when she was found in space in the Brighton area. But her shot was saved at point-blank range by former City goalkeeper Marie Hourihan.
From the resultant corner, Jill Scott headed over.
Three minutes later, Parris squandered another chance, screwing her header just wide from Gemma Bonner’s right-wing cross.
Bonner was having a field day on City’s right flank, with Brighton left-back Amanda Nilden – often required to cover in the centre, and left short of support – struggling to shackle her.
But it was thanks to the equally influential Tessa Wullaert that the visitors took the lead, midway through the first half.
The attacking Belgian international played a clever first-time pass in to Stanway, inside the Brighton area, and the 19-year-old finished clinically.
On 25 minutes, Scott was inches wide with a strike after being found superbly by Steph Houghton.
Bonner headed a Caroline Weir corner just over on 29 minutes before Chloe Peplow finished a fine Brighton move involving Dani Buet and Brazil with a shot that whistled just wide.
But City were still dominant and it was no surprise when they made it 2-0 on 43 minutes.
Scott found Parris just onside with a superb through-ball, and the England striker, aware of all that was going on around her, pulled the ball back for Weir to side-foot home.
Powell introduced substitute Umotong at half-time for midfielder Jenna Legg, with Green – Brighton’s lone, and often lonely, striker in the first half – moving further back.
And there was an instant impact as Brazil almost immediately muscled her way past Morgan down the right before crossing, and when the ball was headed out as far as Buet, the Brighton captain got her shot away rapidly, but just wide.
With less than two minutes of the second half played, Brighton fashioned another opportunity, Aileen Whelan finding Umotong with a superb through-ball, but the Nigeria international striker was denied by a magnificent tackle by Jennifer Beattie, and when the ball came out to Peplow, the midfielder shot well over.
In the 55th minute it looked like Brighton would finally get the goal their second-half start had merited, and again Brazil and Umotong were at the heart of the move.
Brazil robbed a defender and raced towards goal. Ellie Roebuck – for so much of the game a spectator – saved well with her legs, but as the ball came back to the winger, she found Umotong with her cross, but somehow Houghton managed to clear her effort off the line.
The home side were enjoying their best spell of the game, and against a defence that had conceded only five goals in five games before today, they conjured up their fifth half-decent opportunity of the half in the 58th minute.
Umotong fed Green, who returned the ball to the striker. But her low, mis-kicked cross was side-footed agonisingly past the post by Whelan.
They paid a hefty penalty for their profligacy in front of goal, as five minutes later City had their third – and Stanway her second – with a helping hand from Hourihan.
Another divine Scott pass put Stanway through on goal, but her crisp, low shot from 25 yards was more in hope than expectation, yet somehow found its way through the goalkeeper’s hands and legs to make it 3-0.
Four minutes later Stanway secured an impressive hat-trick, collecting Weir’s excellent first-time pass, following another magnificent 50-yard Houghton howitzer and resisting the opportunity to play in Parris to fire home from the edge of the box.
It was tough on Brighton, who were playing so much better in the second half, taking the game to their illustrious, experienced opponents and causing genuine concern in the City penalty area.
As if to sum up their day, the lively Umotong was inches away from getting her head to Barton’s superb deep free-kick, but again the City goal survived and Brighton’s catalogue of missed opportunities continued to lengthen.
The visitors may have been forced to do some defending, but they were still a threat on the break, and they fired a warning of more goals to come on 81 minutes when Weir, now enjoying the sort of space on the left flank that Bonner had had on the right, cut inside and shot just over from 20 yards.
Brighton, forced to do so much chasing, particularly in the first half, were tiring, but the Brazil-Umotong combination still had more energy in reserve, and the pair combined again in the 82nd minute after yet another interception by the impressive Brazil.
She drove down the right and crossed for Umotong, who, with the ball slightly behind her, could not get a decent touch in front of goal, and the missed opportunity was added to the growing tally.
Parris responded almost immediately, with a fierce shot from 20 yards that missed the goal by a whisker, and then at the other end Green was denied by a last-ditch tackle.
Another City goal looked inevitable, though, as the home side refused to shut up shop and went in search of a consolation strike.
The visitors nearly got their fifth in the 85th minute, but Hourihan denied Stanway her fourth at point-blank range after City broke in numbers following a Brighton corner.
Two minutes later it did come when Parris powered home a close-range header from substitute Claire Emslie’s pinpoint cross.
And then Emslie got on the scoresheet herself in the 90th minute, knocking home a rebound after Hourihan had made another superb save to deny Parris following another magnificent long pass from Houghton.
It was 6-0 – the same score as their title rivals Arsenal had managed against a Reading side who had started the day just one place below City.
It was a fair return for their myriad chances, but perhaps a little unfair on a much-improved Brighton, who belatedly discovered that attacking City in numbers might pay dividends.
Their manager, Hope Powell, agreed. She told Sent Her Forward: “I think 6-0 was probably a little bit unkind. The expectation is that [Manchester City] are going to win. We know that. The good thing is that we created some chances.
“We’re not clinical enough. They’re stronger, fitter, faster… we know that. So I think I have to take heart from it. The fact that we created some really good chances gives me confidence. We’ve just got to build on it.
“You’re not going to get many opportunities, and I think we created possibly five opportunities to score. I know they created more, so credit to them. They’re a very, very strong side.”
For all City’s first-half threat, they went into the break just two goals up, and Powell said: “I actually thought we were still in it [at half-time]. I firmly believed we could get something out of it, whether that be a point [or] a goal.
“Obviously, fatigue plays a part – the power and pace is a big difference. But 6-0… a bit unkind. But that’s the game, isn’t it?”
Powell believes the FAWSL is now a three-tier division, but she insists it’s still a competitive league.
“[City] are a team of international players. We’re not. Ours is about working hard with the players we’ve got, getting them to understand the game, read the game a little bit better than we do.
“I think we’re better than we were 12 months ago. I think we’re better than we were six months ago. So we just need to keep putting those building blocks in place.”
For all the squad superiority, which suggested today’s fixture against a team who won one of the new WSL licences in the summer should be fairly straightforward, Manchester City boss Nick Cushing still has big expectations, and he was delighted that his players put into practice what they had been working on during the week.
He said: “We watched the videos, we watched the DVDs, and we knew Brighton were going to make it difficult for us. I thought at moments there was some really good play. What we spoke about this week in training. we were able to do in the game, and we scored six goals, so yes, I’m really pleased with the performance.”
Cushing, who led City to the league and Continental Cup titles in 2016 and the Women’s FA Cup a year later, has his eyes on the Super League trophy again – even though they trail Arsenal – who have a game in hand – by a point with a quarter of the season gone.
He said: “We had a difficult game, and probably a difficult time, against (reigning champions) Chelsea, playing them in the first game (and drawing). We were disappointed to drop points against Bristol [City]. But that’s three wins in the league now on the trot, and that’s where we want to be.
“We’ve consistently put winning runs together, and those winning runs have put us in positions to compete for trophies.”
Cushing spoke in glowing terms of hat-trick hero, England Under-19 international Stanway, who demonstrated clinical finishing alongside senior England striker Nikita Parris – herself a great exponent of the art.
He said: “I’ve had Georgia now for two seasons, and we’ve adopted that approach of allowing her games to go in and make mistakes. to have to go through difficult moments in her game, and she’s developed well, and her performances are showing [that].
“We’re actually doing that with Esme Morgan now – putting her in these games where she’s going to find it really difficult, and it is going to stress her a lot, so that she can get to the level in a season or two seasons, where she can find her form and she can put consistent performances together.
“Young players are a huge part of my strategy and our strategy as a football club, and we’re bearing the fruit with Georgia Stanway at the moment.”
Cushing did not rule out an appearance for the young striker at next year’s Women’s World Cup. He said: “We play Georgia Stanway because she’s got goals in her, and I watched the [England versus] Australia and Brazil games, and I’ve seen Phil [Neville]’s interview, and he calls for more goals.
“Five goals in… she’s played one game and 20 minutes (as a substitute against West Ham United). So yes, if Phil wants goals, Georgia Stanway has proven that she can score goals.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Jill Scott (Manchester City)
Georgia Stanway will rightly get the accolades for her clinical hat-trick, but the hugely experienced Scott continues to shine. She controlled the pace of the game from midfield, winning challenges and finding her team’s dangerous attacking players with pinpoint passes.
In a first half in which City were rampant, Tessa Wullaert was instrumental in so much of City’s positive play, with excellent close skill and an awareness of those around her.
Meanwhile, Gemma Bonner was lording it down the right flank, while Caroline Weir did much the same down the left in the second half.
Steph Houghton and Jen Beattie were redoubtable opponents in defence, although Ini Umotong gave both plenty to think about in an impressive, aggressive second-half substitute’s performance.
But Brighton’s star billing went to right-winger Ellie Brazil, who combined pace and power to cause Esme Morgan problems throughout the game – but particularly in the second half, when she built up a good understanding with Umotong.
Aileen Whelan also came much more into the game after the break as Brighton stormed forward in numbers, while Dani Buet never lets her team down, and – her one error apart – Marie Hourihan did well to keep the score down against her former club.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 A superb performance from Manchester City and a positive one from Brighton in the second half.