When you haven’t won your first four matches, three in the Women’s Super League (WSL), you don’t really want your next WSL match to be against a team that haven’t lost, haven’t conceded a goal and have the chance to go top of the league – especially if they score a few goals. The arrival of Arsenal was therefore not ideal… and Reading fans may have feared the worst.
Despite losing 1-0 to a Stina Blackstenius goal in the first half, Sunday night was by far the best the Royals have played this season. The effort, work rate and team performance were stoic throughout and Reading will be disappointed they haven’t ended up with at least a point – and one they deserved.
Considering it was a match that was screened live on Sky Sports, with a rather silly kick-off time of 6.45pm (that only Sky would have chosen) and it was pouring with rain, there was a very good turnout (a new club record!) and atmosphere at the SCL Stadium (and, to be fair, quite a few cheering on Arsenal).
In a match where Kelly Chambers shuffled the pack several times, the starting line-up had three changes from the Conti Cup defeat against Spurs. Justine Vanhaevermaet and Emma Harries had their first starts of the season and captain Emma Mukandi was back in – with Diane Caldwell, Lauren Wade and Faye Bryson all on the bench.
The starting formation was also a surprise, with a flat back four (4-1-4-1) including Amalie Eikeland preferred at right back (to Faye Bryson) and Emma Mukandi at left back - meaning Lily Woodham was pushed further up the left wing. In what was a night of surprises there was no Grace Moloney in the squad, with her Twitter account similarly absent and missing in action.
It was a heart-in-mouth opening with Arsenal striker Stina Blackstenius clean through within the first 40 seconds, forcing a great diving save by Jacqueline Burns to salvage what would have been a disastrous start to the match.
Lily Woodham showed some early promise with a jinking bit of football that confused and embarrassed Laura Wienroither, the Arsenal right back, only to see her cross hit too deeply. On 26 minutes Wienroither embarrassed herself again, this time at the other end of the pitch, seeing her back-post effort slash all the way across an open goal and out for safety. Another let-off for the Royals.
Stina Blackstenius, on the half-hour mark, ensured Arsenal went in at half-time 1-0 up. Although Arsenal finished the half with a bit of pressure, the Royals held off. The goal conceded looked a little soft, with the Arsenal striker turning and striking the ball just outside the penalty area seemingly catching out a probably unsighted and rooted Jacqueline Burns, diving to her right but unable to reach the shot.
Kelly Chambers made a (presumably forced) change at half-time, with captain Emma Mukandi being replaced by Faye Bryson who surprisingly slotted in at left wing (leaving Amalie Eikeland at right back) and Lily Woodham dropping into defence, at her accustomed left back.
The Royals put in another good shift in the second half and really deserved more. Emma Harries came close on 56 minutes, with her effort rebounding and, in slow motion, seeing her effort go wide.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening came minutes later when referee Louise Sanders gave a penalty to Arsenal. With the stadium in stunned silence and the players in confusion, Sanders pointed to the penalty spot. Even the Sky live action feed said “what an earth was that for?” Justice was served when Jacqueline Burns pulled off another wonder save, diving to her right to stop the penalty kick from Arsenal’s captain Kim Little. The referee was busy with her yellow cards, six in total with four to the team in blue and white.
The Arsenal manager, Jonas Eidevall, made a surprise and bold triple substitution with still 25 minutes remaining – with Vivianne Miedema included in the changes. Clearly more confident than his Arsenal team. You have to look at the assistant referee and their ‘lighty up’ board to see what the substitutions are – as the announcements at the SCL Stadium are dreadful, being a quiet jumbled muffled sentence of ‘guess the substitutions’.
Another Royals substitution saw another shuffle of the formation. Faye Bryson returned to her natural right back position, with Tia Primmer leaving the field and Laura Wade the third player to play on the left wing.
Two big chances quickly followed for the Royals - a Natasha Dowie swivel and shot being toe-poked for a corner by the Arsenal goalkeeper, Manuela Zinsberger. The resultant corner saw another Dowie efforted headed over the crossbar, on the goal line. Very unlucky.
The Royals ended with another injury blow, with the sad sight of Emma Harries being helped off the pitch. Let’s hope it isn’t as bad as it looks, as the Reading striker has only just returned from the dreaded and horrific ACL ligament injury which no sportsperson wants to undergo.
The result means that Reading have now lost five matches on the bounce and remain with zero points and bottom of the league. The performance, however, will mean the Reading manager and fans alike can take some hope into their next match, another tricky one (aren’t they all this season?) away to West Ham United at the Chigwell Construction Stadium. Kick-off an hour later than a ‘normal’ Sunday kick fixture at 3pm. See you there.