Sport Writer Alice Hunt reports live from Villa Park, where the hosts struggled to contain Arsenal in the WSL on Sunday night

Written by Alice Hunt
Sports writer mostly interested in football and cricket.

Aston Villa Women took on Arsenal at Villa Park last night, in an important WSL encounter for both teams. After Chelsea’s 2-0 victory against West Ham earlier in the day, Arsenal found themselves nine points off the top spot, with six games to go. Villa were seventh, with two wins in their last four games. The home side needed to continue this momentum, while Arsenal were in need of the three points to keep their title dreams alive.

Arsenal were clear favourites, despite their 3-1 loss to Chelsea last time out. Villa looked to improve their poor home record this season – with just one win – though a win would have been their first ever home victory against Arsenal.

Arsenal were clear favourites, despite their 3-1 loss to Chelsea last time out

Over ten thousand fans turned out for Sunday evening’s fixture, which had been delayed by 45 minutes after substantial traffic issues for the Arsenal team bus. There were also added difficulties for Villa, whose manager was restricted to watching from the stands, after suffering from illness this week. Despite this, on the club’s dedicated International Women’s Day fixture, fans of both teams were out in good voice for what was an exciting game.

In what ended in a comfortable looking 3-1 for Arsenal, the first 80 minutes of the game were tight and frustrating for the away side. Villa defended solidly and were able to keep Arsenal out for the majority of the game. Despite having 37 shots – the most of any WSL side this season – Arsenal struggled to get the ball into the back of the net – with great thanks to several impressive saves from Villa goalkeeper Anna Leat.

Villa were able to continue their impressive goalscoring run, extending their run of scoring in every game to twelve. However, their concerning defensive form was exposed again. Arsenal’s three goals brought their goals conceded tally to 35, making them one of the worst defensive sides in the league.

The first half was one of many positives for the home side. Former Gunner Jordan Nobbs controlled much of the game, providing a key pass to Adriana Leon, who was able to assist Ebony Salmon for her third goal of the season, putting the hosts 1-0 up at half-time. The goal came much against the run of play, though Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall was not concerned, stating in the post-match press conference that his team had ‘control of the play even if we were not creating that many chances’.

He was right – despite being down at the break, Arsenal had been completely dominant, and continued to be in the second half. Much to Villa’s credit they were unable to capitalise on their possession. Villa manager Carla Ward praised her team’s resilience in defending, stating after the game that ‘I think the girls deserve an awful lot of credit… it was disciplined, tight, compact’. However, despite a strong performance, Villa were unable to contain Arsenal.

strong saves and missed chances meant Villa stayed in the game until the final ten minutes

The Arsenal equaliser came after 54 minutes, when midfielder Victoria Pelova hit home a rebound after Russo’s shot was saved by Villa ‘keeper Leat. The move came from a strong Arsenal press, which forced Nobbs into losing possession. Unlike Villa’s first half goal, Arsenal’s equaliser was very much in line with the state of play – the first ten minutes of the second half consisted of total Arsenal dominance. More Arsenal pressure built, but strong saves and missed chances meant Villa stayed in the game until the final ten minutes.

After hitting the woodwork twice and exerting continued control of the game, it was inevitable that Arsenal would find a way to the three points. This idea was echoed by Eidevall, who claimed he always ‘stays optimistic’, and ‘makes the conscious choice that on the next chance we will score’. His belief was warranted, as the breakthrough came through two quick goals, from England defender Lotte Wubben-Moy and Stina Blackstenius – after 84 and 86 minutes respectively. It would not be an English football fixture, however, without a splash of controversy, and this was seen in the third of Arsenal’s goals which was both visibly offside and was helped by an accidental, but nonetheless clear, handball from the goal scorer. Despite some questionable decisions, which was a topic of discussion after similar errors in earlier WSL kick-offs, the better team won the three points.

it was inevitable that Arsenal would find a way to the three points

The result did, therefore, continue Villa’s poor home form this season. This was identified by Ward post-match. She explained that ‘I think it hasn’t been good enough at home’ but did recognise that ‘obviously we like playing at Villa Park [with games usually played in Walsall at the Bescot Stadium], but if you notice we probably play a lot of the big sides here’. She went on to say how eager she is to play more games at Villa Park next season, especially against the teams closer to them in the table. Despite the result, she was eager to express her pride in the players. Who, for 80 minutes, were able to keep out a strong Arsenal performance. She reflected: ‘I think my biggest strength is getting the players to believe, getting confidence amongst the group’. 

She will be hoping to pick the players up after a tough evening, with her sights still set on a top-six finish – and optimistic that this is achievable. Eidevall also stressed his aims for the remainder of the campaign, with the league title still in their reach, while also preparing for next week’s Conti Cup Final against Chelsea. For both teams there is still plenty to work for this season – with five WSL fixtures remaining.

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