In a pulsating second-half, Arsenal came from behind against Notts County in the last ten minutes to draw level through Kelly Smith before Fara Williams fired them into a sixth straight Continental Cup semi-final, with a 3-2 win sealed.
Centre-backs for centre-forwards
Both teams started brightly, keen to put themselves on the front foot but the Gunners took an early lead when Casey Stoney nodded home at a Jordan Nobbs corner. Whilst Arsenal were composed in the build-up, working together across the pitch Notts continued to look disjoined, not pressurising the ball in either half.
A hopeful ball through the centre found former-Gunner Ellen White as she shielded it between the centre-backs taking the ball wide with no support, Rachel Williams provided an out-ball but her pass to Aivi Luik was smartly cut out by a sliding Fara Williams. The ball went back to the hosts and a 30-yard looping effort from Danielle van de Donk almost caught Megan Walsh out but the deputy keeper was bright enough to tip it onto the bar
Arsenal were still the team on top, utilising players, everyone moving together in sync, no matter who was on the ball there was always an option. As the Gunners hunted for a second, Notts began to settle back into the game, creating better chances. Rachel Williams was alert to pounce on an Emma Mitchell mistake, claiming the ball before firing the ball across the box as White made the late run but somehow from three yards out could only slam her effort against the crossbar.
Then Luik saw her glancing header saved low by Emma Byrne before Aileen Whelan broke into the box and fired narrowly wide. With half-time looming, Stoney was adjudged to have handled just outside the box, Jo Potter curled the free kick into the mix and Fern Whelan, rising highest headed across goal and into the top corner just out of Byrne’s reach.
All square at the break
Arsenal's opening goal, whilst not specifically against the run of play in the opening ten minutes, felt tough on a Notts team that had been resilient enough, although the Gunners were quick to assert themselves against the chasing Lady Pies. Whether because they were a goal down or because they were up against their bogey team, Notts faded away, even with Williams and Whelan on either side, White began to look like the lone striker, chasing lost causes, always with a task against Arsenal's resilient centre backs. The equaliser was a timely one as the visitors were beginning to show more up top, Aileen Whelan more involved higher up and Jo Potter enjoying more touches in midfield
Both managers opted to make attacking substitutions at the break Asisat Oshoala and Jess Clarke brought on to offer each more going forward.
Notts flew out in the second-half and could have taken an instant lead after Byrne bundled a catch at a corner, with a mess of bodies around the far post, the visitors couldn’t get the ball over the line as Arsenal frantically cleared the danger.
Neat work from Oshoala that culminated in Nobbs firing well over the bar from seven yards, Notts were back at their hosts again and took the lead early after the restart. Williams battled for the ball in midfielder before releasing Clarke on the overlap. Clarke got around Alex Scott to get into the box, making an inch for herself and letting fly with a delicious curler past Byrne and into the top corner.
Breathless at the Hive
After going a goal down Arsenal kicked up through the gears and began flocking forward in numbers, applying more and more pressure as County did the same. From one end to the other, neutral fans treated to a show of pure attacking football.
Rachel Williams was on a song for the visitors, fighting for every ball in midfield, strong to bring the ball away from Stoney and Jemma Rose time and again. The former Chelsea attacker almost with her second assist of the day as she threaded the ball through to Whelan but the attacker misjudged the pace as it ran clear.
From sustained Notts pressure to sustained Arsenal pressure. Red shirts crowding the attacking half as the visitors just couldn’t get the ball fully cleared, but after wave after wave Nobbs’ snapshot was heavily scuffed and ran into Walsh’s arms.
Fans shouting at the ref after numerous questionable decisions. Williams clear through on the break and obviously hauled back; nothing. Laura Bassett with her arms raised on Dan Carter’s shoulders; nothing. Carter with a foul on Potter given the way of the hosts. Fara Williams’ catching the underside of the bar from the resulting free-kick.
Kelly Smith sent on by Pedro Martinez Losa, as Arsenal went three at the back, still frantic stuff on the pitch, there was no way both sides could keep the tempo up ‘till the last.
Jordan Nobbs with another chance, but just tipped onto the bar by Walsh. Then Oshoala finding a centimetre of space against Bassett before turning and shooting her, shot just against the side netting.
Controversies and questions
A hugely contentious moment as Arsenal equalised, Williams once again battling for the ball in midfield, Stoney with her arms all over the striker, pulling and ripping at her shirt, Rashid with a fantastic vantage letting the foul go. Williams’ lost the ball under the pressure and Smith came away with it, seeing the space open up in front of her, the veteran thundered her strike toward goal. The effort drilled low into the bottom corner, far out of the reach of a diving Walsh.
Less than ten minutes left and it looked like the match was a replay of the FA Cup quarter final that went all the way to penalties. Both sides giving everything, from one end to the other, bad challenges unpunished, tempers flaring on and off the pitch as fans shouted at the officials. The clock ticked down, into the 89th minute, Bassett with a sliding challenge on Oshoala in the box, well timed to win the ball, the Nigerian international caught with a trailing leg. The official with a clear view kept his flag down and Lisa Rashid, through a crowd of bodies blew the whistle for the foul. A penalty, at the very death. Fara Williams, England record holder stepped up and blasted the ball past Walsh and into the back of the net.
With just stoppage time left the visitors frantically tried to get forward but it was too little too late against a resolute Arsenal side.
Arsenal near-unbeatable in cups
Arsenal are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to cup competitions, with so much quality in the side, Losa will always start a fearful XI with a loaded bench to boot. Although the Gunners have struggle to find their best in the WSL since its’ inception, they’ve always been successful in cup competitions. Losa will be glad his side wasn’t pushed to extra time but with a team that’s better than their opponents on paper, the Gunners’ boss won’t be happy that his side ran it so close.
The loss is yet another for Notts against Arsenal, their record against the Gunners makes for glum reading. Just like in the FA Cup match earlier this year, Notts can be left feeling hard done by, decisions once more going against them. The officiating wasn’t at its’ best, and whilst the Lady Pies certainly had a few things go in the favour – Arsenal will argue the Stoney handball all day – there was three big big calls that well against them in the second-half. With memories of Laura Bassett’s red card in last year’s Conti Cup final still fresh in their minds, Notts must be let wondering what it will take for them to beat their bogey team.
However, Rick Passmoor can be pleased with the performance from his team, who’ve responded well from a terrible showing against Manchester City before starting to look more like themselves against Reading.
Note: The questions raised over the standard of officiating are nothing new and for those interested in reading about more of the discrepancies seen in WSL this year, you can read my opinions on the subject here.