Manchester City Ladies maintained their unbeaten run in the Continental Tyres Cup and moved to the top of Group 2 by condemning Sunderland to their first defeat in eight games on a chilly Saturday evening in Hetton.
Reigning cup holders City effectively won the game in the first quarter of an hour as they exerted their obvious height advantage at set pieces, both goals resulting from corners. Nikita Parris was the first to score, pouncing in the penalty area after Rachael Laws had made a superb point-blank range block from the hugely impressive Isobel Christiansen, who then found Steph Houghton with an inch-perfect cross four minutes later. Former Sunderland defender Houghton, now captain of both club and country, gave Laws no chance with a thumping header to double the score. Indeed, it could have been three if not for an insane goal-line block by Tori Williams to deny Parris in the seventh minute.
However, Sunderland managed to hit back quickly with a set piece of their own as Victoria Greenwell produced a brilliant corner to find Gemma Wilson, replacing captain Steph Bannon for the game, who nodded into the opposing net for her first goal of the season. Despite this, City still continued to dominate possession, with South Shields-born Demi Stokes looking particularly threatening and England World Cup stars and former Lasses Lucy Bronze and Gill Scott causing all sorts of problems down the Sunderland left.
Sunderland tightened up defensively though, limiting their opponents to just half-chances before the break before enjoying a spell on the ball themselves at the end of the half, with the usually composed Beth Mead dragging a shot wide of Karen Bardsley’s goal. Mead’s pace and skill was largely nullified by the City defence, although that didn’t stop the top scorer in the Women’s Super League from causing a few problems as she worked tirelessly up until a hamstring injury forced her off after an hour. As her side’s greatest attacking threat this season, the Lady Black Cats will be hoping that the injury isn’t too serious as they maintain their quest for what would be a hugely surprising WSL title.
The second half followed largely the same pattern as the first, with The Citizens enjoying the majority of possession as they tried to find a third goal. Both Parris and Christiansen found themselves one-on-one with stand-in captain Laws but the ‘keeper was in fine form, saving from Parris and forcing the latter to put her shot wide. Laws denied Parris yet again in the final few minutes as the game reached a nail-biting climax, with Sunderland pressing for an equaliser and City countering at every opportunity. In the end it was the Blues who scored as Wilson clattered into Parris to concede a penalty which was smashed into the top corner by Toni Duggan. The City striker had a relatively quiet game by her standards but made no mistake in sealing the game for her side just a minute after hitting the post with another fiercely struck shot.
The game, played in front of a season’s best attendance of 1514, was yet another brilliant example of how much the women’s game has progressed in the last few years and even the most hardened Sunderland fans will be ready to admit that it was a privilege to watch the likes of Houghton, Scott, Bronze and Duggan perform at their best. Both sides are back in WSL action next weekend, with Manchester City hoping to record yet another win against Notts County. Sunderland, meanwhile, travel to relegation candidates Birmingham City and will want to record a win to put this result firmly behind them.