‘I thought we did exceptionally well. We kept them at bay for a good while. We stopped them playing through us, which was our game plan, and we frustrated them.”– Lauren Bruton (Reading FC)
“It’s a very tough place to come with a great atmosphere, we are pleased to be coming away with the three points. A goal on my 50th appearance is a little landmark, but most importantly we won.”– Izzy Christiansen (Manchester City)
Manchester City Women extended their lead at the top of the FA WSL 1 league to seven points, narrowly beating Reading FC Women 2-1 at Adams Park on Wednesday evening.
Despite the away side dominating possession, Reading made life difficult for them from the off. As a result, it took until the the 38th minute for Izzy Christiansen to open the scoring. Substitute Toni Duggan made it two with ten minutes remaining, dispatching a spectacular finish from 18 yards before Lauren Bruton pulled one back for the hosts from the spot as extra time approached. While it gave the home support a brief glimmer of hope, it was too late to deny City the win.
Reading made a couple of changes to their starting eleven following their 1-1 draw against Notts County Ladies on Sunday. Kylie Davies dropped out of the squad altogether with Kayleigh Hines taking her place in the centre of the defence. With Hines dropping back, Lois Roche came into midfield as well as Remi Allen who started in place of Melissa Fletcher. As a result, Rachel Rowe was moved out to the wing.
City, meanwhile, made a couple of changes themselves with an injured Megan Campbell being forced to sit out and Jennifer Beattie taking her place at centre-back. Keira Walsh was also dropped from the starting eleven in favour of Tessel Middag in the defensive midfield position. England international Toni Duggan, could only earn herself a spot on the bench.
As the game got underway, the early signs were somewhat ominous for the home team. It was clear that Reading had specific tactics going into the fixture which probably involved sitting deep and frustrating their opponents, keeping them off the scoresheet for as long as possible. For a long period, they definitely worked too. City were moving the ball around pretty well but were often thwarted by the Reading players. When they could get a shot away, it often went wide.
The first real opportunity of the game fell to a Reading player. Rachel Rowe fired goalwards after only 4 minutes, but Demi Stokes made the block in time to deny her. From then on the vast majority of opportunities fell City’s way. Jennifer Beattie had a shot from distance which flew past the post, captain Steph Houghton saw her header cleared off the line following a Christiansen corner, Nikita Parris volleyed over after a nice piece of skill and Kirsty McGee tackled expertly to prevent Christiansen from close range. That was all in the first 15 minutes of the game.
After 20 minutes there was a moment of worry for the Royals as Bruton was fouled by Lucy Bronze. Bronze was on the recieving end of a stern telling off from referee David Rock while Bruton required treatment on the sidelines for around 5 minutes.
City top scorer Jane Ross then had a couple of opportunities but on both occasions was stopped by some great defending from Reading keeper Mary Earps. After 38 minutes, City were to make the breakthrough. It was the first time that Reading had left a player unmarked and the away side made them pay for it. Nikita Parris was picked out in space out on the right wing before delivering an inch perfect cross for Christiansen to head home.
A minute later, Reading saw a brief opening as a Beattie mistake gifted Jade Boho-Sayo the rare opportunity to get a shot away. Shooting from a wide angle, however, meant it was a relatively straightforward save for Karen Bardsley to make in the City goal. The very last opportunity of the half fell to Beattie herself but she could only head the ball narrowly wide. It was a tight half but one which ended with a 1-0 lead to City.
The second half started in a similar vein, with City seeing more of the ball in the Reading half. The Royals had a decent opportunity to level the score before the hour mark when Hines got up for the header from a corner but could only direct it straight at Bardsley. Minutes later, 17-year-old Georgia Stanway nearly took her goal total to 4 in as many days but her drilled shot cannoned off the post.
Due to defending so deeply, Reading were often struggling to break out again when they won the ball back. Bronze’s attacking runs also meant that the likes of Emma Follis were sitting far deeper than Reading would have liked. Follis got her chance to make an impact, however, when a long ball seemed to play her clean through. Bardsley had other ideas and got to the ball first to clear.
Earps was also stopping her fair share of attacks down the other end, preventing both Stanway and Parris from doubling City’s lead. With so much work being done in the midfield, it was unsurprising to see both sides make changes after 60 minutes. Keira Walsh replaced Tessel Middag for City while Laura-May Walkley came on in place of Lois Roche.
As the half went on, play was becoming increasingly physical with a number of fouls being committed by both sides. The first to be booked, however, was Walsh who cynically pulled back Bruton as she tried to break. The resulting free-kick was wasted by Follis as she could not pick out a teammate.
Both sides had chances to score with Ross once again shooting wide for City and Hines this time heading wide of the post from a Reading corner. The problem for opponents with a team like City is the calibre of their team. Clearly looking for the second goal, the away side brought on Toni Duggan in place of Georgia Stanway.
With 10 minutes of the game remaining, the ball dropped to Duggan at the edge of the area. In typical fashion, the striker emphatically hit the ball into the top corner to make it 2-0. There was simply nothing Earps could have done to stop it and Duggan made it very clear to City manager Nick Cushing that she should be starting.
Now 2-0 down, Reading made a more attacking change with Melissa Fletcher coming on in place of Remi Allen. It was a change that I personally would have liked to see a little earlier but one I was happy to see nonetheless. City also took the opportunity to make a change with the ever impressive Jill Scott coming off to be replaced by Daphne Corboz.
City had a further two opportunities to increase the score with Christiansen shooting wide and Ross once again missing the target, but Reading were the ones to make the breakthrough. Follis picked up the ball on the left wing before making a run into the far corner of the City box. After being fouled by Parris, Reading were awarded a penalty which Bruton subsequently dispatched with ease.
At 2-1, going into 4 minutes of extra time, the equaliser was potentially still there for the taking. City were able to see out the game expertly, however, and held onto their 9th win of the season. It was a resolute Reading performance and the side fought all the way until the finish.
In what was a strong performance defensively by the Reading team it would be wrong to highlight one individual player. Their work rate could not be faulted and they showed a determination that should see them push on for the rest of the campaign. Their defensive tactics did, however, cause them a few problems. As they were compact for a large portion of the game, the Royals often struggled to counter as they had no one in their opponents’ half.
Boho-Sayo was the often isolated figure up front being marked by both centre-backs and when the looped clearances were played forwards she had very little chance of getting to them. The attacking threat of both City full-backs also did not help matters, with both Reading wingers being forced backwards in the process.
All this being said, Reading will have been expecting a difficult game and that was exactly what they got. They will be proud of their efforts, however, with other sides such as Notts County Ladies and Doncaster Rovers Belles being on the end of 5-1 and 6-0 respective defeats against City earlier in the season.
While City have their next game on Sunday in their Continental Cup Quarter-Final against Doncaster Rovers Belles, Reading will have to wait until Sunday 28th August for their reverse fixture against City.
Despite soaking up the plaudits at the top of the league, City were not as impressive as I thought they would be. Reading disrupted their rhythm and made life difficult for them. Too many of their shots also failed to find the target, to a point where I began to question their goal tally this season. While it will be another tough test for the Royals, they continue to show that they can tough it out at this level and will be looking to cause an upset once again.