Arsenal and City have had notable seasons which have manifested in them both acquiring indomitable reputations. With an identical record of wins and losses, and a goal difference of just one, this match was looking to be a game of fine margins. However, with City's 2-1 Conti Cup defeat earlier in the week, and the imminent departure of their boss Nick Cushing, this was going to be an arduous test. The emotional gravitas could potentially tip City either way.
Playing against each other for the second time in a week, changes were expected to keep each on their toes. Team sheets released, both sides presented talent that would leave many quaking. For Arsenal, the return of Jordan Nobbs to the starting eleven, but somewhat surprisingly no place in the squad today for captain Kim Little or Lia Walti. For City, a change at the front with powerhouse Pauline Bremer replacing Tessa Wullaert to begin with. Georgia Stanway once again positioned at the back in the absence of Janine Beckie.
With the expectant crowd ready to go as Houghton and Nobbs led their teams to the pitch, at 2pm it was all to play for at the Academy Stadium.
The first half took the expected path with both sides approaching the game with patience, the game looking very evenly matched for the first ten minutes. Within these opening minutes, the game had seen the first of many an encounter between Stanway and Beth Mead. For the officials this should have been an early warning in what was to come. Increasingly Arsenal looked to be the stronger side heading towards the midway point of the first half, gathering a healthy amount of possession and knocking the ball around comfortably. Quick runs from Katie McCabe and Mead, alongside dangerous balls in from Lisa Evans, meant Arsenal pushed City's back line to its limits. However, the Gunners were unable to follow through with City keeper Ellie Roebuck looking alert.
After several looming dangers from the Gunners, City desperately needed to kick themselves into gear. Enter Keira Walsh, with an impressively quick counter, to rouse the crowd and to get City moving. A seeming switch in mentality saw City pick themselves up and quickly test Arsenal with a sharper grasp of the game. Lauren Hemp's immense pace to beat out McCabe saw City make their first real threatening play of the game. Quickly followed was an excellent run by Jill Scott whose ball to Bremer couldn't hit the back of the net thanks to a solid block by Danielle van de Donk.
Now with both sides looking lively, the game began to take on a faster pace and chances were beginning to open up. Frustrations were clearly beginning to creep in with an increasing amount of aggressive challenges being seen, especially in the case of Stanway and Mead. The referee perhaps a little too lenient with these in the first half. However, an eventual foul by Jill Roord to take down Caroline Weir finally led to set piece for City. A beautiful ball in by Weir saw Arsenal scrambling defensively. Bremer managed to get a foot to it to take City one up just before the break. An unlucky result for the Gunners at half time.
Team talks over, City attacked the second half with their eventual momentum of the first. A quick look to weigh up her options, Walsh's judgement once again prevailed as she sent a near perfect ball into Hemp. Hemp presents a wonderful finish with her head and City were ahead by two at 49 minutes. But never one's to go down without a fight, Arsenal were quick with their counter with Nobbs taking her chance but putting the shot over the crossbar.
With City beginning to settle, the Gunners put their foot on the gas once again. A run in possession from Vivianne Miedema almost allowed Mead to open the door, however it was the rebound that finally put van de Donk on the score sheet. We were at 2-1 at 58 minutes. At this stage of the game both sides were playing with fire. Aggressive challenges were coming in thick and fast; the officials, sometimes questionably, allowing play to continue. An ultimate foul by van de Donk saw the first yellow card of the match. Arsenal fans, unsurprisingly not happy with this, given the referee's leniency with Stanway.
More challenges saw another three yellows within the next 15 minutes, two of them falling unfavourably to Arsenal. An indecent pull on Hemp by McCabe then saw a furious Steph Houghton protest for a red. McCabe booked with the fifth yellow. Intense play from both sides continued to galvanize these players however neither side were able to put away any more goals. Finally, a monumental 7 minutes of stoppage time brought this fiery match to an end.
Manchester City, two - Arsenal - one.
What was clear today was that both sides brought their A game. Houghton, Walsh and Weir provided exceptional foresight in pinpointing balls to runs for City, alongside mega defending and strong physicality from Demi Stokes and Scott. Hemp singlehandedly caused the Arsenal back four all sorts of problems and Roebuck continued to stand strong even after a barrage of chances. An excellent day for City.
McCabe and Mead continuously showed dominance on the wing, both were integral in creating chances for Arsenal. Evans' clever game play was influential throughout, but it was Van de Donk who was a standout today. Her ability to move herself around the pitch at a rate of knots meant she was a constant threat. Where City showing peaks and troughs, Arsenal remained constant for the duration. Final score aside; a promising day for Arsenal.
Both City and Arsenal were commendable. Neither one showed complete dominance over the other and at certain points it looked like it could go either way. Once again there is a huge question mark over the standard of officiating. The referee was inconsistent throughout, perhaps to the detriment of the Gunners today. But whether a City or an Arsenal fan, there is no denying that this match had plenty of talking points. It was most certainly everything we were hoping it would be.
To the delight of City players and supporters alike, this was a fitting farewell for Nick Cushing.
by Charlotte Stacey