Perfect timing for another Women’s Football Weekend

Women’s Football Weekend couldn’t be coming at a better time for both the Barclays Women’s Super League and the FA Women’s Championship, writes Rich Laverty.

Both divisions are evenly poised at both the top and the bottom as the form table starts to take shape and we get some semblance of an idea as to who has come out of the COVID-19 inflicted period away from football the strongest.

It’s also a weekend to show off the best of the women’s game, whereas the past week has sadly once again brought to the surface many of the key issues which still need eradicating from the sport.

Whether it was postponements or non-postponements, controversy reigned supreme, with Everton vs Manchester United called off in the Continental Cup, and Manchester City vs Bristol City getting the opposite treatment in the league.

The former was postponed due to damage to Everton’s home stadium sustained during high winds early last week, with United head coach Casey Stoney not struggling to hide her unhappiness at the late nature of the postponement.

The damage was inflicted last Monday night, with Everton staff members discovering the damage early on Tuesday morning. After failing to source all the parts needed to do the necessary repairs, Everton informed United on Tuesday night the game couldn’t go ahead and also sent images of the damage to the FA.

The Toffees offered to reverse the fixture to United’s home ground at Leigh Sports Village, but this wasn’t possible at short notice. Conspiracy theories started to rumble given Everton had been through a gruelling 120-minute FA Cup final just days earlier, but deeper-lying was the need to ensure stadiums and facilities at elite level in the women’s game need continued improvement and investment.

Bristol City were the next side to feel hard done by. After playing Crystal Palace in a Continental Cup tie on Thursday night, they had to travel to Manchester City on Saturday morning for an afternoon kick-off, a crazy enough schedule without the added extras.

Those extras being they had five first team players missing. After one player came down with COVID-19 symptoms, but had not tested positive, four other players who lived in the same house were forced to isolate, meaning Tanya Oxtoby had to bring along several academy players just to fill the bench.

The FA released a statement to say they were satisfied Bristol City had followed protocols and FA medical staff were happy for the game to go ahead due to the club having enough players available to fulfil the fixture.

Indeed, to call the side Bristol City put out an ‘academy’ side would have been false, but even without COVID-19 complications, the fact the team were forced to play Thursday night and Saturday afternoon was ridiculous in itself.

While clubs are left to arrange cup fixtures themselves, City would have had little say on their game being moved from Sunday to Saturday, due to a potential clash with the Man City men’s game. 

It is somewhat a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, after complaints in past years of clashes with the men’s teams, but some common sense was perhaps needed on this occasion, given Bristol had one minor recovery session and no more to try and prepare for what was already a tough encounter.

It’s a difficult one for the FA, given City didn’t have a confirmed positive test. A similarly ugly situation was seen in Spain over the weekend, when Granada had to take what was essentially an illegal team to Real Sociedad because so many were missing through positive tests or isolation.

While we want as little disruption to the schedule as possible with several clubs having already had games postponed due to having positive tests or players having to self-isolate, it won’t be a good look should these situations continue to arise.

That’s why this week will hopefully shine a light on everything that is currently good in the women’s game.

After Manchester United’s breakthrough and deserved victory over Arsenal on Sunday, it has set up a tantalising couple of matches this coming Sunday, with the spotlight on the women’s game.

United host local rivals City on Saturday, with a win for either important in differing circumstances. For United, it would be a double boost. It would reaffirm Stoney’s side as contenders this season, with the added bonus of all but ending their neighbours’ title hopes before we’ve even reached December.

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A similar result to the last derby back in the FA Cup though would do City and head coach Gareth Taylor the world of good. With an FA Cup success already under his belt, it’s been a good start for the new man in charge, but City’s league form has stuttered and a win this weekend is pivotal to their hopes of not just a title charge, but potentially maintaining their spot in the Champions League.

Further south, Arsenal host Chelsea in another crucial encounter. Emma Hayes’ champions have been flawless since their opening day draw with Man United and are rightfully still many people’s favourites to defend their crown this season.

Arsenal meanwhile need to bounce back, in more ways than one. Not only would a defeat further affect their chances of winning back the title they won in 2019, but would raise further questions about their big game record.

In games against sides outside the ‘top five’, Arsenal have won 6-1, 9-1, 3-1, 5-0 and 6-1 so far this season, with other similar results last season, including a record breaking 11-1 win against Bristol City.

All their recent defeats though have come against their rivals. This season, even before defeat to United, they had lost to Manchester City in the FA Cup and Chelsea in the Continental Cup, to add to their defeat against their London rivals in last season’s final.

The last time they faced Chelsea at home in the league, it ended in a thumping 4-1 loss back in January means they have lost eight of their last nine meetings with the Blues, including all of their last six, a record which has to change on Sunday.

There’s also the prospect of a first Midlands derby of the FA WSL era too, with newcomers Aston Villa getting a much-needed first win at Brighton Sunday, another side whose preparations were affected by COVID-19.

Birmingham City have outperformed what people believed they were capable of already this season under new head coach Carla Ward, with two wins and a string of strong performances already pulling them six points clear of Bristol City at the bottom.

Even in the Championship, I’ll be working with Sheffield United on Sunday against Durham, a clash which sees the top two in the league go head-to-head. While most eyes are on the top division, just one point separates the top four sides in the second tier and the race for one sole promotion spot is set to be the best yet.

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