This is becoming a bit of an unwanted habit for Manchester City. In each of the four seasons since winning the 2016 WSL title – five if you include the 2017 Spring Series – they have had to settle for second place and, once again, modern history repeated itself on Sunday.
Chelsea’s demolition of Reading ensured events at Dagenham proved academic, with Gareth Taylor’s side destined for the runners-up slot regardless of result. Although victory against West Ha
m was assured courtesy of Ellen White’s 75th‑minute volley, an afternoon in which Taylor saw City have two penalties saved and hit the crossbar three times, seemed somehow suitably emblematic of the club’s wider frustrations.
Not that Taylor was too downcast at the end of a first season in charge which, despite some early teething trouble as he adjusted from life in the men’s game, concluded on a compelling upward trajectory. In collecting 55 points from 22 games, City produced title winning form with the only problem being that their sole defeat of the campaign, at Chelsea in October, ensured Emma Hayes’s team finished first.
“We just need more time together,” said City’s manager. “But I’m very excited, we can only go from strength to strength. We’ve seen real, constant, improvement this season, we’ve run a very good team very close while playing good, exciting football at pace. There’s a lot of pride.”
Things had barely begun before the tannoy crackled into life, informing City that Chelsea had taken the lead against Reading. Yet if the announcer hoped this would prove the cue for Taylor’s players to give up the ghost they were wide of the mark.
If Karima Benameur, deputising for the injured Ellie Roebuck in the visiting goal, was underworked, her opposite number, Mackenzie Arnold came under repeated assault in the course of a first half during which Caroline Weir’s shot rattled the underside of the bar, Gilly Flaherty cleared off the line from Weir and Arnold tripped White in the area, conceding the first penalty.
Brighton’s 3-1 home win over Bristol City not only condemned Matt Beard’s side to relegation to the Championship but ensured Hope Powell’s team finished sixth, their best WSL finish.
Bristol City’s fall into the second tier ensured Birmingham and Aston Villa survived. Villa earned a point in a goalless draw at Arsenal, who finished third as they bade farewell to their Australian manager Joe Montemurro who is taking a break from the game following four years in charge of the North London club.
Ella Toone scored a fine volley as Casey Stoney’s Manchester United defeated Everton 2-0, thereby leaving Stoney’s side fourth, one point ahead of Willie Kirk’s Merseysiders. Louise Taylor
Although the goalkeeper atoned by saving Sam Mewis’s kick it was extremely easy to understand how Taylor’s team had won 13 of their previous 14 WSL fixtures.
Olli Harder’s side had spent recent weeks extricating themselves from a relegation struggle but West Ham’s hopes of an unlikely upset briefly soared as Hawa Cissoko initiated a rare counterattack, combining cleverly with Kenza Dali before screwing an acrobatic volley just wide.
Admittedly it was an isolated chance but Taylor had rightly poured pre-match praise on Harder’s powers of tactical organisation and, sure enough, the home defence succeeded in large blunting City’s concerted attacking efforts. Hats off to Flaherty, Harder’s captain and defensive cornerstone, for her part in thwarting White and company as she made her 150th WSL appearance.
Taylor’s team may have been struggling to score from open play but they very nearly took the lead from an early second half corner only for Mewis and Esme Morgan to see headers rebound off the bar in the space of a few seconds.
Home resistance was eventually broken when Lucy Bronze dispossessed Cissoko before crossing for White to celebrate her 32nd birthday by volleying beyond Arnold from close range. “I thought we could have been five or six up by half time alone,” said Taylor. “But our final ball let us down and that became a bit of a theme.”
When Cissoko felled Bronze, her side soon had a second penalty and the moment had come for Arnold to save a second spot kick from a United States World Cup winner. Rose Lavelle, on as a second half substitute, stepped forward but could do no better than her compatriot, Mewis, as Arnold guessed correctly, diving smartly to deny a midfielder Taylor has not quite managed to bring the best out of this season.
Happily for City he has got almost everything else right. “We want the WSL trophy in our hands next season,” he confirmed. “But to have got our points tally without winning it it this season, tells you the level you’re operating at and how the women’s game has grown. In this league, you’ve got to be really at it all the time.”