City make their move early
It took just 14 seconds for the Citizens to beat the home defence, as Izzy Christiansen pounced on a loose ball before laying off to Georgia Stanway. Despite taking her cross first time the ball was angled perfectly to pick out Jane Ross, with the Scottish international meeting the perfectly weighted ball with a deft header to beat Nicola Hobbs.
The fans barely had time to get comfortable in their seats and crack open their drinks before City had taken the lead/ The sky blues quickly began to look like a hungry cat toying with a helpless mouse, flexing their claws and licking their lips before flicking a paw out to bat at their prey.
Carla Humphrey picked the ball up and went for a stroll into enemy territory, blue shirts fell away as she dinked a cross towards the back post. Katrin Omarsdottir stretched at leg at it as she got behind Steph Houghton, but the cross was just too deep and it drifted behind. It was a warning for the visitors that the Belles refused to be a chew-toy and could scratch right back.
Doncaster started putting together some passing to get them moving forward but the Citizens were swift to put them in place doubling their advantage on the quarter hour. Toni Duggan’s questionable out-swinging corner delivery found Houghton who sent the ball back in and Christiansen’s scuffed shot eluded Hobbs, much to the dismay of the home fans.
As City grew complacent the Belles began to advance more and more but lacked much needed composure as well as a way of breaking down the backline, most balls went sent forward long and hopeful. The hosts saw a glorious chance just before the half hour go begging as again they worked themselves forward and Christine Murray’s powerful shot from distance eluded Karen Bardsley but pinged off of the bar before flying back into the mix.
The rebound dropped to Humphrey but her volleyed follow-up flew high over the bar and the visitors had a let off as the hosts grew in confidence.
No rest for Hobbs
With the return of Duggan to the starting XI, Hobbs had plenty to think about when she unleashed one of her trademark curlers from the left side of the box but the keeper, who’d looked a little suspect, was up to the task and tipped the effort over. The England international looked sharp as she chipped the ball over defenders in the box to worm some space but the Belles had learned their lesson and were sure to keep numbers back.
Once again the Belles had a half-chance, Rhiannon Roberts WAS unable to see an option in midfield sent the ball spinning towards the back-post and with everyone in the box missing it, there were nervous moment for the fans as it squirmed past Bardsley but round the wrong side of the post. City WERE thoroughly relaxed in the game as they had been last weekend, willing to canter to the win rather than work their hosts.
Roberts was again the unlikely party involved in a Belles attack, coming millimetres from connecting with a Murray free-kick sent whizzing to the back post. With the Citizens looking lax across the park, these were chances the Belles needed to be making the most of but the hosts continued to waste their best opportunities, fluffing their lines.
Put to bed early
After her introduction in place of Stanway, Nikita Parris looked to cause problems with her pace, running at the defence she earned her side a corner which was duly cleared for another on the opposite flank. Duggan’s delivery found the backpost as Lucy Bronze made a first class late run into the box, unmarked, her firm header enough to see Hobbs beaten for a third time.
Even after periods of protracted pressure from the hosts the ball stubbornly refused to drop kindly, with yellow shirts flocking forward and the Citizens unable to clear Omarsdottir could only curl her chance over Bardsley’s bar. Even with numbers forward it was never quite enough for the hosts, Jennifer Beattie and Houghton an imposing presence at the back that were unwilling to be beaten.
Even in the dying moments, City still asked for more, Parris once again driving at the defence, making herself unliveable for the Sam Tierney. Corner after corner the Citizens threatened from set-pieces but the scrambling Belles managed to keep them out with some never say die last-ditch defending. Omarsdottir drew cheers from the crowds in the 89 minute as her close-range shot was easily held by Bardsley.
Once more the Citizens were willing to turn the flash on, substitute Daphne Corboz urged to shoot by the travelling fans, the American obliged and despite Hobbs getting something on the ball couldn’t stop the strike from range from finding the net.
Belles quiet home and away
The game a mirror for Doncaster’s season, getting off to a bad start from the get-go, despite marked improvement they always looked second best, struggling to compete at the higher level. The Belles grew into the game as they have the season, looking half-dangerous for periods but without a sustained or composed effort.
Blunt up front following the injuries to Courtney Sweetman-Kirk and Jess Sigsworth, no one stepped up to offer themselves as a number nine and without a clear focus in attack they looked unbalanced, dull and lost.
After a fragmented season Doncaster have only just reached the mid-way point with eight games played, eight left. Both home and away ties against Arsenal and Liverpool comprise half of their remaining games, however home games against Notts County, Reading and Sunderland as well as an away tie to Reading on the last day of the season are the other four. Four games that probably won’t bear any fruit and four that could be huge, the first win or even the first point potentially monumental for the Belles.
With Courtney Sweetman-Kirk and Jess Sigsworth due back from injury after the next break, Doncaster will feel confident going into the second-half of their season. However after so long of chasing that first point, the games could be coming at the worst time for the historic club.
City getting the job done
Arguably leggy from four matches inside of a fortnight, City once again failed to hit top-speed; the football a shadow of what it was in the second-half of last season. When they were chasing Chelsea every inch of the way, leaving teams in their wake and earning themselves a European spot, they were unplayable.
When they returned from the 2015 World Cup, City didn’t stop for one second, eyes on the prize they were ruthless and a delight to watch. This year they’ve failed to live up to the billing. Their skill and class is still obviously there but too often doesn’t break through the surface and requires two or three players to shine as their teammates list through games.
There is an argument, that after getting through so many games with good results – Bardsley unworked and someone always (bar once) popping up with a goal – yet sub-par performances that City don’t have to produce their best. This year City have rarely been anywhere other than top, their nearest rivals have made too many blunders to be considered competition, City still, amazingly, unbeaten in the league with just four games remaining.
The focus for the Citizens remains to be the WSL title but with a tasty Continental Tyres Cup semi-final against Arsenal and a promise of a home final should they best the four-time champions the Gunners will give them something to think about. Birmingham City or London Bees await the winner at the CFA, Arsenal live for cup competitions and will be more than willing to put it all on the line to retain their title.
Awkward fixture placement may be the most deceive for City, the semi-final just a week before an away league fixture to the same opponents and the final tied up around UWCL games as well as a potential title-decider against Chelsea, City may have to take that one on the chin.
Both the Arsenal and Chelsea games will be a stern test for the sky blues, but whether or not they can be bothered to find second gear or not remains to be seen.