Arsenal Ladies 3 Doncaster Belles 2. Champions.
With Birmingham City Ladies having got the desired three points last Sunday, Arsenal still had to wait to retain their WSL trophy. It looked as though they would need at least a draw in front of ESPN`s cameras to reclaim their crown. However, in Birmingham`s 2pm kickoff against Bristol, Arsenal`s closest challengers could only draw. So before I had even finished my pre match pint in the Heart and Spool, Arsenal had sealed the championship just as they came out to warm up at Meadow Park. With important games on the horizon, Laura Harvey rather seemed to suspect the deal was already done. Rachel Yankey, Steph Houghton and Kelly Smith were all rested to the bench.
This meant Danielle Carter got a chance to start in the front 3, the second half of her season has been upset by an Achilles injury. Ellie White also got a run out in her more favoured centre forward position. Ellie is another who has had her season interrupted by a back problem- the way Donny centre half Tanya Oxtoby went clattering into her in an aerial challenge in the first half, it`s surprising it didn`t recur today. The first half was a lively and entertaining affair. Though the home side dominated possession, the Belles had the first two opportunities of the game and Arsenal had Emma Byrne to thank for maintaining parity.
Aine O`Gorman sprinted beyond Jen Beattie at left back. Her cross looped into the air for Mille Bright to volley. Byrne stooped low to keep it out, but the rebound fell invitingly for Bethany England, but Flaherty scrambled the ball away. Byrne again had to get down low to beat out Bright`s low shot. This time it was Beattie that swept up the rebound and smuggled it to safety. However, the champions took the lead on 16 minutes. Dani Carter`s disguised pass found Ellie White in the right hand channel, she fired the ball low back across the area only for Lyndsey Cunningham to slice comically into the roof of her own net.
But if Arsenal thought it was party time, they were mistaken. Aine O`Gorman received the ball on the right hand side and was afforded time and space to run towards the Arsenal area. She rather overstayed her welcome though when she unleashed a 35 yard shot which flew right into Emma Byrne`s top corner. It was no less than the Belles deserved. But Arsenal set about reasserting their advantage. Donny certainly weren`t giving anything away cheaply. But Ellie White really ought to have done better when she latched onto a bouncing ball that was misjudged by Cunningham. She skipped clean through on goal and tried to round Mary Earps, but Earps just got a hand to the ball and enervated White`s progress. The ball broke loose to Carter, who again tried to feed White in the six yard area, but Oxtoby came back with a confident block.
But the home side did retake the lead five minutes before the interval. Jordan Nobbs found Gemma Davison on the right hand side, she tricked her way past Williams before clipping a cross into the area. Incredibly this brought about another own goal; this time Tanya Oxtoby headed past her own keeper. Donny trailed despite having scored all three goals. Arsenal could have extended their lead in first half injury time when Nobbs` lofted pass found Kim Little and she hit the bouncing ball with a fulminating volley that flew just over. Jess Sigworth fired a smart shot just over the connection between bar and post as a thoroughly entertaining half drew to a close. The interval was besmirched by a nasty looking injury to Belles substitute Lucy Sowerby, who trod on the ball and fell awkwardly as she warmed up. She had to be helped from the pitch unable to place her knee under any sort of weight.
The second half was a much less lively affair. Donny tightened up at the back with Victoria Williams in particular catching the eye. Arsenal no longer had a need for points, but do have big cup engagements on the horizon. Steph Houghton came on for Jenny Beattie and Kelly Smith for Gemma Davison in an attempt to liven proceedings up. A slick midfield passing move saw Alex Scott slide a beautiful reverse pass to Kim Little in the area, she steadied herself and struck across the keeper, only to see the ball bounce back off the post. The rebound was a bit too quick for the lurking Carter. Gilly Flaherty took a painful blow in the penalty area and was soon replaced by Yvonne Tracy. (Flaherty had her arm in a sling for the post match celebrations and must be a doubt for Thursday`s Champions League tie against Barcelona).
But it was, quite typically, the class of Kelly Smith that left the deepest impression on the game. Within 5 minutes of coming on, her movement provided some space in the channel between Donny`s right back and centre half. Kim Little duly obliged with a wonderful slide rule pass and Kelly Smith just steered it effortlessly beyond Earps and into the corner of the net. There are few more natural footballers in the women`s game than Smith, though injury and age has robbed her of her mobility, her touch, movement and football brain just makes the game look so effortless. Frankly, she is streets ahead of any striker in England.
However, the Belles were still in no mood to let Arsenal break out the balloons. They were back in the game within minutes. Lipka`s dipping long range effort was fumbled badly by Byrne and captain Leandra Little was on hand to steer the rebound into the roof of the net. It`s a goal Byrne can be very disappointed with. However, Arsenal simply don`t know how to sit back. In stoppage time Yvonne Tracy`s zipping 30 yard drive flew just past the post. But the final whistle confirmed the collection of yet another three points, preserved Arsenal`s unbeaten record in the WSL this season and allowed the festivities to begin. Shortly after the game, the players collected their well earned trophy and showed off their medals to the crowd. This is Arsenal`s ninth consecutive league title win, their 17th overall and sees them retain their WSL crown. For photos of the celebrations and some of the players with their medals, you can click on my twitter photo stream here. But for now, all that is left to say, is congratulations to Laura Harvey and the girls. LD.
ARSENAL: 1.BYRNE, 22.SCOTT, 7.GRANT, 5.FLAHERTY (3.Tracy `72), 14.BEATTIE (2.Houghton `59), 17.CHAPMAN (c), 16.LITTLE, 8.NOBBS, 15.CARTER, 12.DAVISON (23.Smith `74), 9.E.WHITE. Unused: 4.Ludlow, 11.Yankey, 19.Fahey, 31.Harris.
DONCASTER BELLES: 1.EARPS, 4.LITTLE (c), 6.CUNNINGHAM, 20.OXTOBY, 13.WILLIAMS, 10.LAGONIA, 15.LIPKA, 3.SIGSWORTH, 9.O`GORMAN, 7.ENGLAND (14.Chadwick `70), 10.BRIGHT. Unused: 5.Sowerby, 12.Hotham.