A tight game with two missed penalties, Notts defended brilliantly throughout but saw their resistance broken in the most dramatic of circumstances as they left Manchester empty-handed.
The season begins
Both teams were busy throughout preseason. Man City opted to test themselves against Swedish and Australian opposition, Notts against a handful of WSL 2 teams, and both were victorious in their respective FA Women's Cup matches at the weekend - City comfortably beating the new-look Liverpool in Widnes and County despatching with Durham at home.
Meanwhile, Laura Bassett continued her suspension from the WSL Cup final and Carly Telford was still troubled with a knock she picked up with England, so remained on the bench. The only change from their FA Cup match was Alice Hassall making way for Leanne Crichton.
For Nick Cushing's side, the victory at the weekend wasn’t without sacrifice as Izzy Christiansen picked up an injury that has ruled her out for at least two months.
She thus joined Megan Campbell and Keira Walsh as long-term absentees, meaning Cushing drafted in youngsters Althea Paul and Amelia Kemp to pad out his bench for this game. With the exception of Nikita Parris coming in for Christiansen though, the squad was unchanged from the one that beat Liverpool.
The two teams were kicking off this season as they finished the last; squaring up at the Academy. City edged that fiercely contested game 2-1.
Two missed penalties; no goals at the break
Within the first five minutes, the hosts had forced Notts to defend many corners. The Lady Pies unable to clear the ever-present danger but City couldn’t convert from the chances, Amy Turner blocking on the line and Abbie McManus firing over. County were blocking and tackling for their lives as people still taking their seats in the stands.
However, out of nowhere, Jess Clarke broke with the ball and danced her way through the challenges coming from those in blue, breaking into the box before being brought down. The ref wasted no time in pointing to the spot. From nothing, the visitors had a penalty.
Clarke stood over the ball as her old Lincoln team mate tried to make herself big in the home goal. “Miss, miss!” urged the home fans and Clarke duly obliged, dragging the ball wide of Karen Bardsley’s right-hand post. A collective sigh across the stadium.
A little cheekiness from Toni Duggan occurred as she threw the ball off the pitch at a Notts throw in. The ref gave her a slap on the wrists as Dani Buet implored one of the ball-girls. It was early in the game but the City striker was already weary of the quick throw-ins Buet would dispatch throughout, and their danger.
Man City attacked and Notts County flapped, County tried to counter and were immediately swarmed.
Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Kosovare Asllani, Duggan, Jane Ross, Demi Stokes, Daphne Corboz, Parris, Ross again, then to Jill Scott; the ball pinged from one blue shirt to another as they advanced, corner after corner, block after block. Notts were lumping it forward for Clarke, Ellen White and Yankey to chase and that’s just what they did, three in rotation chasing every loose ball, applying pressure where possible, if just to alleviate the pressure on their own defence.
The ball on the roof of the net for the hosts, then into the side-netting, then just wide, no, wait; deflected wide, another corner. Megan Walsh was standing tall in Telford’s big boots (and small gloves).
Twenty minutes played and not a minute’s relief for the visitors. A woefully bad challenge by White brought Bronze down near the touchline, and bafflingly no card shown. The game continued in the same vein. A goal mouth scramble, two big blocks to deny the hosts. Scott with a shot from distance but easy enough for Walsh.
However, City would get a big chance as Parris tussled with Buet out on the left and drove into the box, and was nibbled to the ground just inside. The ref once again pointed straight at the spot. The scoreboard read 30 minutes 0-0, but with Duggan over the ball, that was about to change. But no. Duggan the Deadly saw her shot saved; Walsh down to her left, the ball trying to slip out of her grasp as she held on for dear life. Notts were still alive; the crowd shocked as, for all their chances, the Citizens still didn’t have a goal to boast.
Clarke broke at pace once more down the left and teed up James to shoot, but Bronze came up with a huge block, the ball crashing against her abdomen and sending the full-back down prolaxed.
But then the ball was back with the Sky Blues; every pass incisive. Bronze, Duggan, Ross, to Asllani at the back post, a tap-in, the net rippling but still no. The linesman’s flag aloft. The two sides still deadlocked. City in full-flow, County struggling but still in it, Jill Scott with another shot, Megan Walsh with another save. Another fine attacking move from City, Buet at the back post to clear the danger, Stokes lurking behind her for a tap-in.
And to half time - somehow, to the bafflement of everyone - the Lady Pies had made it without conceding. They had grown in the game, still rocky as anything but dealing. Just about dealing.
City had 11 shots on target and seven off in the first 45 minutes, which is pretty much all you need to know about how one-sided the match had been; the away goal leading a charmed life. It was incredible that they hadn’t scored, they could have had a handful already. Nonetheless, second half promised to be more of the same; Man City moving forward as one deadly unit, County throwing everything in front of the ball to shield their goal.
Scrapping for the points
Seconds after the restart, Rachel Williams was powering down the right, needing an option. Yankey burst into the area, but was crowded out by blue shirts as Stokes carried the ball away before hoofing clear.
Notts starting the second half well but almost immediately the hosts were back on top. Sophie Bradley-Auckland, back from injury (and a shoe-in for this year's longest name of shirt award) was full-blooded as ever to slide in to stop City advancing.
Instead of everyone camped in City’s attacking third the game was becoming more of a middle of the park battle (battle being the operative word). Scott and Williams tussling, hands pulling shirts, flailing arms and a loud smacking sound as Williams’ hand swung around and accidentally caught Scott in the face, the midfielder going down.
Lucy Bronze, with her best Usain Bolt to scythe through the County midfield, got to the by-line, dispatching her cross. Block. Corner. Block. This was getting repetitive, was Bill Murray about to pop up? The Citizens still had the style, the flair, the link and build-up; but still Notts stood firm.
The Lady Pies had shuffled things up at half-time. Williams was now playing as the no.9, Yankey and Clarke the wide players, White playing deeper. But as the game wore on, Williams got more and more isolated and was visibly tiring as her challenges became clumsy with fatigue. Clarke and Yankey did their best to break but were always one against two or three.
County trying to launch a counter; Houghton, McManus, Stokes, Ross, Corboz and Scott were all back. City attacking; everyone bar Bardsley seemed to be forward, black and white drowning in a sea of blue, but still the Citizens had no goals to show for their dominance.
City crank up the pressure as the whistle nears
Twenty five minutes left to play and an innocuous looking challenge just outside of the away box had the ref blowing up once again. From range, Houghton produced a stinger for Walsh to claim.
Yankey chasing a loose ball but never outrunning Bronze had the possession back with the Sky Blues; Ross dinking the ball towards Parris, but a poor first touch meant Walsh smothered.
The game wore on, both sets of players giving it everything. Yet another corner and once again Scott firing over. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this before. Oh, and Notts were throwing everything at the ball to block it, sound familiar?
Fifteen minutes left, everyone was getting stuck in with over-zealous challenges. Half the bodies on the pitch were on the floor at one point, as if they were experiencing a sudden loss of gravity.
Ten to play and Scott flashed one just wide. Duggan was urged to shoot from her favourite far corner of the box, but the shot deflected just wide. Walsh claimed Ross’s header from the resulting corner.
Shortly after, a corner broke down and Duggan shot from 30yards, but she was only able to catch the upright behind the goal. Five minutes left on the clock and it still wouldn’t happen for City.
They had four minutes of stoppage time to change that, but for Notts it was not long to hold on for that hard earned point. City frantically tried to break the deadlock; a free-kick, a corner, a Duggan shot, but nothing.
However, in the final minute of the stoppage time, the hosts was awarded a free-kick just outside the box. Houghton was eyeing up the goal and, as she fired her measured shot, Walsh looked to have it caught - but no, the net rippled as the Academy Stadium erupted. Houghton with the winner at the very death; a body blow for the visitors. City finally having bested a superb Megan Walsh.
Fully deserved three points for the Citizens - but Notts deserve credit
Cometh the hour, cometh the captain. There is no question that Man City deserved to win the match. They had attacked solidly for 94 minutes, but at the same time, Notts County didn’t deserve to lose; they had defended solidly for 93 minutes. A point would have been huge for the Lady Pies, the most respectable of draws after 90 minutes of hard graft. However, to lose so late was a crushing blow on matchday one.
But for City, it's a massive three points. The Citizens know they can be no less than perfect this season if they’re to pip Chelsea to the title and, after 93 frustrating minutes with the most impossible of blocks and goal mouth scrambles, they finally had their goal. Captain Fantastic, no less than perfect.
Corboz was named as Player of the Match and rightfully so. She was a rock in midfield, orchestrating the team, and her influence could be huge in the coming months with the injuries City are dealing with. The American is yet another tireless worker for her team who is as at home in defensive midfield as she is out on the wing.
From top to bottom, City did what City do; overrunning teams, steamrollering them into submission and just generally outplaying them. It might have taken 'til the dying seconds, but City always find a way.
Still, huge respect must be paid to Notts County. They dug in and defended with everything they had all night and will all be coming away bruised for their troubles.
County fans have made their feelings about transfer dealings throughout the now closed window rather clear. However, one must commend Rick Passmoor. Yankey’s loan, whilst not just completely out of the blue, looks like brilliant business, as the England international still very much has it. The departure of Alex Greenwood left big boots to fill and, whilst Krantz might not be able to offer all that the Liverpudlian can, she looks to be a solid defender. Everyone who’s familiar with WSL will be aware of what James can offer you on the pitch, although she wasn’t quite at her best tonight. And of course, young Walsh, dealt almost everything and produced a huge performance in Telford's absence. Finally, although she’s not a new signing, Buet also had a fantastic game, blocking left, right and centre to keep County alive and kicking in the game as much as Walsh did.
It will be a long and nervous season for the teams behind the top three. Notts struggled to score more than they conceded last season and it’s hard to judge what sort of threat they pose in front of goal this season. But whatever happens over the course of each game and their season, this is a team that will battle ‘til the last.