When the fixture list was announced for the 2015 Women’s Super League 1 Season, Sunderland AFC Ladies must have been faced with some trepidation coming into their debut season in the top division. With their first game of the season being away to reigning champions Liverpool Ladies, the Black Cats were going to have to acclimatise fast to life in the top division. Having won the WSL 1 title for two consecutive seasons, Liverpool Ladies have cemented their position as the side to beat in recent years in English women’s football. Last season the Reds only suffered defeat twice and on the back of a defeat in the FA Cup against Birmingham City last time out, Liverpool would have been keen to get their season off to a good start. On day one of the WSL 1 season, however, it was the WSL 2 Champions who came away with a surprise victory to start their season on a high.
“For this season, it would be about remaining in the top flight and then obviously you’re looking to then build on that every year with the players that you’ve already got, maybe one or two new players coming in to help enhance the squad.”– Sunderland Ladies Manager Carlton Fairweather
The Liverpool starting lineup was a strong one with a team of full-time professionals including likes of England Internationals Gemma Bonner, Fara Williams and Natasha Dowie. Nigerian Asisat Oshoala also made her league debut for the side, being the first African player to play in the WSL. The Sunderland lineup, made up of several part-time players, saw their top goalscorer of last season, Beth Mead, and ex-Everton player Brooke Chaplen both starting.
As the first half got underway, it was difficult to tell who were the WSL 1 champions. Sunderland were on the front foot from the off, making runs into the box and confident when holding up the ball. The side were understandably compact early on, somewhat wary of conceding an early goal against the title holders. Liverpool were the ones with the best opportunity to open the scoring, however, when miscommunication between Sunderland defenders saw Nicole Rolser in on goal. A poor first touch, however, took her away from goal and the follow up from Ingrid Ryland went wide.
Sunderland did look nervous at the back on some occasions, but any defensive errors went unpunished by the Reds. Fara Williams had a couple of long distance efforts on goal, but neither tested the Sunderland goalkeeper. Liverpool were made to resort to long range efforts, as Sunderland continuously hustled for the ball and nullified the Reds’ prolific attacking options.
The breakthrough came on 27 minutes, as Beth Mead’s header hit the back of the net to give Sunderland a 1-0 lead. An inch perfect cross from Keira Ramshaw came in from the right wing to find Mead unchallenged in the centre. Having scored fifteen goals in twenty games last season, the striker got off to the best possible start. Liverpool goalkeeper Libby Stout will have been disappointed with her part in the goal, as she completely misjudged the flight of the ball, leaving Mead with an open goal to aim at.
With a goal to the good, Sunderland continued to look confident. Rachel Furness in particular impressed, despite having a bump to the head, with several long distance speculative efforts coming close. One particularly impressive effort saw a first-time volley just looping over the bar. Going into half-time, Liverpool’s big names were not being allowed to have time on the ball and subsequently were unable to influence the game.
The Reds started the second half brightly, with a crucial defensive header from Sunderland defender Abby Holmes preventing a goal scoring opportunity for Liverpool early on. Liverpool were able to string more passes together, but their greater possession statistics were not rewarded with goal scoring opportunities. Mead down the other end, however, continuously caused the Liverpool defence problems with her pace and strength when holding up the ball.
Upon the hour mark, Liverpool came closer to creating a goal scoring opportunity. A penalty shout was rightly waved away by the referee and Oshoala saw a long range effort saved by the goalkeeper. Oshoala was taken off soon after, bringing a disappointing league debut to a close. Dowie also struggled to get much time on the ball, let alone create any chances for herself in front of goal. That was at least until a Williams free-kick led to a goalmouth scramble. Liverpool players crowded the goalkeeper, which was not deemed a foul, and Dowie saw two headers rebound off the bar from point blank range.
Liverpool’s luck went from bad to worse, when a quick break from Mead was brought to a halt courtesy of a foul in the box from Satara Murray. There was a questionable offside from the initial pass, but there was no doubt about the foul from Murray, who signed for the club earlier this year. Mead was also struck in the face, and a consequent nose bleed meant that she was unable to take the penalty. Strangely, Sunderland manager Fairweather decided to delay proceedings by making a substitute prior to the penalty. Chaplen, however, was unphased, striking the ball into the roof of the net on the right side of a rooted goalkeeper.
With 80 minutes gone, and finding themselves 2-0 up Sunderland were looking confident enough to hold onto their lead till the end of the game. Liverpool were able to create one more chance for themselves, however, courtesy of a corner. The Williams corner was whipped in once again into the area of the goalkeeper where it was palmed off the line. The ball came out to Murray, who redeemed herself for giving away the penalty by finding the back of the net. At 2-1, Williams had the last chance to equalise but her free-kick was dragged wide.
For Sunderland, it is simply one match on a long road to WSL 1 safety but it will have done their confidence a world of good going into games against Manchester City and Bristol Academy. It is a less than ideal start for Liverpool, however, as they seek their their third consecutive WSL 1 title. They will be hoping to put on a better display next time out against Birmingham City and Chelsea.