Manchester City clinched their third Continental Cup in five years after beating last year’s winners Arsenal in a thrilling penalty shootout at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane.
In a cup final clash between the current top two in the Women’s Super League, both sides were evenly matched in the opening period, with neither able to break down each other’s resolute defences. The first big chance came just before the stroke of half-time, when ex-Gunner Steph Houghton’s header from a deep corner was parried away by Sari van Veenendaal.
In the second-half, City started the brighter and almost took the lead just before the hour mark when a driven free-kick saw Van Veenendaal come storming out from her goal, only to see Nikita Parris’s clever glancing header come off the crossbar and spare the Dutch international’s blushes.
With the game heading for extra-time, Janine Beckie’s fierce drive from the edge of the area almost won it for City late on, but her effort agonisingly cannoned off the top of the bar. Despite both sides going for the win, there was nothing to separate the two, with the game eventually heading to penalties for the first time in the competition’s history.
With nerves at their all-time high, it was City’s Karen Bardsley who was the hero as she saved both Leah Williamson and Danielle van de Donk’s spot-kicks to give teammate Janine Beckie the chance to win the cup, and she duly obliged.
Key Talking Point
After leaving the Women’s Super League’s most prolific goalscorer Vivianne Miedema on the bench (with suggestions that fatigue had played a part in the decision), Arsenal
manager Joe Montemurro certainly left his pre-match team selection up for debate.
Whilst they looked defensively solid, the Gunners lacked a clinical edge and guile up front without their star striker. Such was the side’s absence of creativity, City goalkeeper Karen Bardsley barely had a save of note to make in the 90 minutes.
With so very little end product going forward, the Gunners were ultimately made to pay in the penalty shootout and, perhaps more importantly than the cup, will feel the psychological impact of the loss heading into the business end of the league season.
Starting XI: Van Veenendaal (7); Arnth (6), Williamson (8*), Quinn (6), Veje (6); Bloodworth (6), Little (8), Van de Donk (7); Evans (6), McCabe (6), Mead (6).
Substitutes: Miedema (6),
STAR PLAYER – In a game dominated by the strength of both sides’ defences, the Gunners’ Leah Williamson was undoubtedly the pick of the bunch. The 21-year-old – remarkably in her fifth season with the club’s first team – was majestic at the heart of Arsenal’s back four, and marshalled City’s dangerous attacking duo of Georgia Stanway and Nikita Parris superbly.
The England international impressed once more with her composure on the ball, and showed on numerous occasions an ability to step up and pinch the ball in midfield areas. Despite her miss in the shootout, Williamson produced another commanding performance.
Key Talking Point
Having lost against the Gunners in the final last year, Manchester City boss Nick Cushing insisted that his side were a better team this time around on the eve of the game. The current league leaders were arguably the better side in the game, particularly in an impressive second-half performance.
City were unfortunate not to win the game in regular time, with Nikita Parris and Janine Beckie each hitting the crossbar, whilst Arsenal goalkeeper Van Veenendaal made a string of superb saves to keep them at bay.
In the end, Cushing’s side’s deservedly picked up the trophy, with England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley’s experience seeing her save two crucial spot-kicks in the shootout. With City also top of the Women’s Super League too, the side are still on for what would be an incredible domestic double.
Starting XI: Bardsley (8); Bonner (7), Houghton (7), Beattie (7), Stokes (7); Weir (8), Scott (8), Walsh (7), Wullaert (6); Stanway (7), Parris (8*).
Substitutes: Beckie (8), Hemp (7), Emslie (7)
STAR PLAYER – Under the watchful eye of Lionesses’ boss Phil Neville, 24-year-old Nikita Parris showed the huge promise she possesses. The forward was impressive with the ball at her feet, often skipping away from challenges with ease, and became more of a threat as the game went on.
The England international showed her bravery on numerous occasions when challenging for crosses, and could consider herself extremely unlucky not to have opened the scoring with a smart flicked header from a free kick.
After facing City in the Continental Cup final, Montemurro’s side have a three week break for the She Believes Cup before they return to Women’s Super League action to take on Bristol City on 14 March.
Similarly to the Gunners, City have a rest before their next clash against Reading on 13 March, as they look to maintain their grip at the top of the Women’s Super League.