FAWSL Round 3 & ContiCup Stories: Living in a rollercoaster

A lot has happened in the last seven days in England. You’d be forgiven for not really being able to reconciliate some of the results with the competitions they eventuated in and the teams that were involved in them. It is not helped by the fact that things are apparently also bonkers in the Premier League, or so we have read. Round 3 of the Barclays FA WSL was sandwiched between the semis of last year’s FA Cup and this year’s ContiCup first round. There were goals, surprises, inexplicable results and some truly exciting debuts. Where to even start?

Are Everton the next big thing?

The conversation that this year’s iteration of the FA WSL is the strongest and most competitive ever feels now old. With three teams able to qualify for the UWCL next season (in a new group stages format), the discussion outside of the apparent top three (Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal) is whether any other team can compete for that coveted third spot, and what will it take for someone to break into that bracket. Man United might have been the obvious candidate to take that next step and make the WSL an even more open league, particularly for the new spectator or those who might forget that they were only promoted into the league last year.

Quietly, but confidently, however, Everton are building, and they are building something huge. They came from behind to knock Chelsea out of the FA Cup despite looking like they were going to get steamrolled in the first 10 minutes. Then did their duty and beat Birmingham in the semis to book themselves in for the final at Wembley at the end of the month. Then went on to massacre Aston Villa 0-6 with remarkable ease for a team that has played four games in two weeks.

Their form made their encounter against Man City in the Conti Cup on Wednesday all the more interesting. Everton got the opener, and they were in it until almost the end. Chloe Kelly scored for Man City to give them the lead in the 77th minute, and City ended up wining 3-1. You can forgive them for having run out of legs. But do not underestimate them. They have recruited extremely well even if quietly, with the likes of Raso, Christiansen, Sorensen… and the transfer money they paid for Gauvin is thoroughly justified. Watch out, because they might just be the next big thing.

Are Arsenal flat track bullies?

I hate this term, and yet the results put together by Arsenal in the last ten days would make anyone think that it is an appropriate description of their season so far. Having only heard this expression in Australian rules football terminology, let me clarify: a flat track bully is a team that demolishes teams placed lower on the ladder, but come up short against any sort of decent opposition.

Arsenal came from behind with some complications against Bristol City at home to continue their three-for-three, table-topper run. However, in the past week, they have lost games against Man City and Chelsea, their main rivals for the league title, in cup rounds. Montemurro has insisted on his tactics, replacing injured in-form star Jill Roord for Danielle van de Donk. Now, DVD is a quality player, but she was pushed to play directly against Sam Mewis and Jill Scott, who outmuscle and outsize her quite considerably. Roord and DVD are not a straight swap, and Arsenal missed Jill’s presence in both encounters.

About their game against Chelsea, well no one really knows. We have seen the highlights, but the game was not broadcasted live (how very Spanish of them) for reasons unnamed – although suggestions on social media have pointed at the fact that Chelsea’s main sponsor is a direct market rival of the league cup’s main sponsor. As an excuse, it is poor – and yet it is better than anything we have read about the Primera Iberdrola.

In better news, carrying Arsenal during this odd period of uncertainty is Jordan Nobbs. The English midfielder seems to have found her touch and pace after a long ACL injury that stopped her from participating in the Women’s World Cup on 2019. Nobbs’ efforts on goal have been top shelf: it is almost as if she just cannot score an ugly goal. Her goal against Bristol sparked Arsenal’s comeback, whilst she set the gunners into a winning path with a long-range chip against Spurs in the FA Cup quarterfinal.

Can’t get a reading on Chelsea

Where are Chelsea at? Nobody really knows. Knocked out of the FA Cup quarterfinals by Everton, who had more hunger and fight to get the result, barely scrapping a 1-0 victory against Birmingham in the WSL, you’d forgive us for thinking they might get rolled by Arsenal. And yet, they came out on top, very, very on top, with a 4-1 victory in a game that no one saw.

Is it a matter of balancing the pieces together? Is it erratic fortune in front of goal? Sam Kerr has had an irregular start to the season, but Harder and England have also struggled at times. With Fran Kirby back to full fitness (and in some form), England has been sacrificed more often than not, and she needs continuity and confidence to perform. Chelsea truly missed Magda Eriksson against Everton, not just because she is the captain and leader of the defence, but also because Emma Hayes decided to not replace her in the squad – their 3-4-3 plan seemed to work until Everton found their feet.

Chelsea’s true credentials (and form) will be tested this weekend against a Man City side that are building along nicely. Will be get an accurate reading of where they are at?

City’s slow cooker

The biggest signings of the year all went to Manchester, and City grabbed some of the most exciting names in the game with the returns of Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood, the securing of American rising starts Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle and the investment in the future with Chloe Kelly.

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To say that City have been less than flashy in this start of the season would be unfair: their record this season backs them, they are in the FA Cup final after knocking out Arsenal and they beat in form Everton during the week. Their only blemish is a draw at home against Brighton. Is there a sense that the hype has not made instant impact? It would not be inaccurate to say that their best and most in-form addition this year is Kelly, who has not just been scoring for fun, but doing it with ease and, much like Nobbs, seems to be incapable of scoring an ugly goal. Did we expect more dominance, more goals, more flair? Possibly. But are they going badly? By all means, no.

Lavelle took some time to earn her debut and Mewis has secured a spot in City’s midfield that also boast the quality of Jill Scott and Caroline Weir. On paper, there really isn’t anything that this team should not achieve. Having had some time to settle, it looks like City are slowly cooking something. Again, we will get a better reading of where they are at when they play Chelsea this weekend. Despite both teams being two points behind Arsenal (and Everton), an early head-to-head can go a long way of determining league positions.

Debuts and fades are United

United started with a spirited draw against Chelsea. Then a difficult win against Birmingham. Then they really hit the ground running against Brighton, who had impressed until then. They even got Tobin Heath and Christen Press on the park, and their early association with Jackie Groenen promises to give United fans a lot to smile about.

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But then, inexplicably, they lost in the Conti Cup first round 3-1 to Liverpool. With Heath and Press on the field, who would have thought that Rachael Furness would have been the hat-trick hero? Again, did they run out of legs? Their approach to the game was similar to the day against Birmingham, but this time they just could not get past the relaxation phase.

United have had to deal with some personnel availabilities, from Katie Zelem’s COVID positive to Ona Batlle’s ankle, and obviously the delayed starts of Press and Heath. This still does not justify giving away the first Conti Cup game, particularly in a group where they will have to face Everton and Man City, and only the top two qualifies for next round. Leaving the homework for later down the track can prove costly, if there is no instant reaction. Up next? A Tottenham side who comes out of a 4-0 Conti Cup win and who, rumour has it, might be fielding Alex Morgan for the first time. Talk about a challenge.

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