Bristol City confirmed their return to WSL 1 with a strong second-half performance over fellow promotion hopefuls, Everton.
Knowing nothing less than a win would do Everton hit the ground running, dominating the ball from the outset, determined but panicked. Up against a well regimented – albeit relaxed – Bristol side, Everton consistently struggled with the final ball, all sizzle but no substance.
Claudia Walker, Rosella Ayane, Joey Johnston and Michelle Hinnigan all had their chances in the first twenty minutes as the Vixens chased shadows, penned in but resisting the onslaught. Finishing at the premium, Ayane’s direct free kick rolled over the bar moments before Johnston’s ambitious effort flew over, Caitlin Leach alert but untroubled.
When Bristol won the ball they moved forward with haste, Millie Farrow back from injury was a ghost, anonymous in a subpar team. The Vixens’ best chances came not from their own persistent work but lapses of concentration from the hosts, home nerves bubbling under the surface. The first time Chloe Arthur made herself known, Willie Kirk’s side very nearly benefited, the Scottish international explosive, carrying the ball through midfield and into the box her whipped ball across stretching the home defence. Millie Turner, Vicky Jones and Gabrielle George all charging down and blocking the dangerous ball.
An innocuous throw-in lead to the break-through, the hosts with zero pressure on the ball in their own half as Claire Emslie received in the ball in acres of space 25 yards out, her curler not reaching her intended target of the far top corner but with just enough on it to slip past Kirstie Levell’s outstretched palm.
Against the run of play, and out of nothing The Vixens lead, although it wasn’t long before the home fans were left celebrating. Following some argy-bargy in the box at a routine corner the ref was left pointing to the spot, with total disregard for the occasion, Walker sent the ball into the waiting right side of the net.
Once more it was all Everton, but the hosts sagged against a red wall in the final third, bad decision making hampering any moves. Another lapse from the home side and Bristol found a snappy route through, Flo Allen’s snap shot from 30 yards curled through the air before slipping just past the post. It didn’t take long for the game to revert to its’ pattern; Everton piling bodies forward but with no avail.
The game paused with five minutes of the half left when a Messi would-be burst onto the pitch, his goal warmly celebrated by the fans as the 22 on the pitch threatened to lose their concentration. Levell let off after a mix-up in the box, George’s clearing header looped towards goal for Vicky Jones to nod off of the line and behind for a corner.
Bristol at the double
After seeing little of the ball in the first-half, Bristol came out for the second like a team possessed and once more took the lead as Millie Farrow sprung into life to pounce on a poor back pass from Megan Finnigan to steal the ball away and knock it past Levell. The game became stretched as more and more gaps started to appear across the pitch, Everton seeing less of the ball and still being wasteful with their chances as Hinnigan knocked Turner’s cross just wide of the near post.
Everton’s promotion hopes fading fast as Emslie produced a goal of the season contender, carrying the ball forty yards, dancing through the midfield and scything through the defence, shifting the ball between her feet to cut around the centre backs. With a mere inch of space the crafty attacker let fly, her curved shot once again just too much for Levell. A superb solo effort that left the hosts needing something very special to take anything from this one.
Johnston’s neat square ball to Ayane should have been enough to reduce the deficit but the Chelsea loanee could only make contact with the air above the ball, her balance off and frustration growing. The miss kick typifying the Blue Girls’ match.
But just when it looked like the hosts were ready to fall apart they dug deep, a change of personnel and shuffle was enough to see George pushed from centre-back to centre-forward, her ball across bundled by Leach as Dan Turner got just enough on it to put it past the forlorn goalkeeper and defenders.
With just five minutes of regular time left the hosts got their second wind, powering up the after burners in chase of an equaliser but again a lack of quality and cutting edge in the final third let them down, George’s point-blank flick was an easy claim for Leach.
The home crowd roaring as five minutes of stoppage time were announced, Leach collecting a lofted corner on cue. Late drama as the referee awarded the hosts a second penalty to a questionable handball in the box but left the hosts with a glimmer of hope deep in stoppage time.
Tasked with the second as well as the first, Claudia Walker stepped up, having watched Leach go to her left last time as she rolled the ball to the right Walker opted to the do same again. Leach already having made her mind up to dive to the other side of her goal with full conviction, Walkers’ penalty is one she’d want to take again, her nerves showing as her tame effort was saved by Leach.
Only one winner
The result sees Bristol back to the top of the table – second placed Yeovil can fight for their spot in WSL 1 tomorrow at the Hive – having already confirmed promotion, Willie Kirk insists the party won’t start until after their last game of the season. The Vixens’ still eyeing the top spot come the end of the season.
A dominant force in WSL 2 this season, even with such a young squad Bristol have looked convincing throughout, unlucky with injuries (and injuries to senior players) the step back up to WSL 1 is a big one, the Spring Series a blessing for the West Country club.
The loss is a tough blow for the Blue Girls, who were on top for most of the first-half but struggled to capitalise throughout, their season hasn’t been blemish free and it shows. Although promotion is still possible for the Widnes-based club it will rely not just on their next game but Yeovil’s next two games, if the Lady Glovers win tomorrow it’s another season in WSL 2 for Andy Spence’s side. Nearly but not quite for most of the game, if this Everton team were to go up there would have to be big improvements across the board for them to be able to compete with the best of WSL 1.