Reading Women were unable to make it a hat-trick of Championship wins this afternoon, after a disappointing second half, losing 3-1 away to Sunderland, who remain in second place, equal on points with top-of-the-table Southampton.
After the opening half a dozen league matches, it’s fair to say Reading have largely failed to perform to their best early in a match. Today though the tables were turned, with the Royals - in their purple (Turtle) third kit - enjoying an impressive opening 45 minutes, but this time they failed to follow that up in the second half.
The Royals can, however, consider themselves unlucky to have left the field 1-0 down at half-time - after some super football and two wonderful Sanne Troelsgaard efforts hit both the post and crossbar.
Liam Gilbert made two changes to the team that beat Lewes last weekend, with Troelsgaard and Charlie Estcourt returning to the midfield starting line-up with Josie Longhurst and Deanna Cooper on the substitutes bench - meaning versatile Tia Primmer was given the responsibility of leading the line in the usual 4-2-3-1 formation.
Team 4-2-3-1: Orman (GK), Dugdale, Houssein (Elwood, 69), Primmer, Wade, Hendrix (Longhurst,88), Mayi Kith, Estcourt, Gregory (Jarvis, 88), Woodham (Captain), Troelsgaard
Unused subs: Annets (GK), Smith, Cooper, Meadows Tuson
Although Sunderland started (and in fact finished) the match with an impressive unbeaten start to the league (and equal on points with Southampton), it was Reading that started the match on the front foot. The visitors had four successive corners in the opening four minutes and showed no signs of scarring after their midweek heavy defeat to WSL side Tottenham Hotspur in the Conti Cup.
Reading looked very confident from kick-off, with their first-half movement (with and without the ball) and pressing much better - pleasingly reflecting Gilbert’s pre-season words and promises of passing of the ball ‘with purpose’ and ‘high pressure’. It’s clearly still a work in progress as the second half wasn’t anywhere near the standard set and Sunderland punished them, effectively and efficiently, ending hopes of getting anything from the match.
Troelsgaard will be wondering what she had to do this afternoon to score or create a goal. On 16 minutes she set up Lauren Wade, with her left-foot shot from a tight angle blocked by the Sunderland defence for a corner. The Danish international was later involved in another move, with Estcourt, this time Freya Gregory being unable to finish.
With the half-hour mark just gone, Reading came closest to opening the scoring. Brooke Hendrix was unlucky with her goal-bound header, from a Troelsgaard corner, blocked. The ball found its way back to the Danish international, who unleashed a rocket of a strike from the edge of the Sunderland box, only to see her effort hit the far post and rebound to safety. It would have been a worthy contender for goal of the month had it crossed the line.
Just minutes later it was Troelsgaard again that produced another failed contender for goal of the month. This time her skill in the penalty area produced a sublime chip over the goalkeeper, Claudia Moan, only to see her effort this time bounce off the crossbar and cleared to safety.
It was Sunderland’s Ellen Jones though, one minute before the end of normal time in the first half, who punished the Royals. A volleyed shot found its way into the bottom corner of an empty Reading goal after Emily Orman failed to punch clear a Katie Kitching corner from the right, putting the home side 1-0 up at the break.
The second half was largely, and disappointingly, all about the home team, who started with an early warning shot which was comfortably saved by Orman. Just five minutes later, and after an excellently timed lunging tackle from Hendrix, Sunderland doubled their lead with a goal from Elizabeta Ejupi. The Sunderland striker stabbed the ball home from within the six-yard box after the Reading defence failed to clear another Sunderland corner. 2-0.
On the hour mark the home team pretty much secured the points after a breakaway from a Reading corner saw Katie Kitching outpace Rachel Dugdale down the Sunderland right. She ran the length of the half to finish coolly across Orman and into the bottom corner of the goal. 3-0.
Gilbert made a change, bringing on Amelia Elwood as the number nine, in place of Halle Houssein, with Primmer and Estcourt taking up new positions in the reshuffled midfield.
Gregory gave the Royals some hope with a quarter of an hour remaining when she picked up the ball on the left, was allowed to run into the Sunderland box, and calmly slotted the ball between the goalkeeper and the near post for 3-1.
Although Reading made two further late changes - Longhurst and Lulu Jarvis on for goalscorer Gregory and Hendrix - the home team shepherded out the five minutes of time added on with no real drama to take all three points.
It was, unsurprisingly, my first visit to the Eppleton Colliery Welfare Ground. For a team challenging for the top spot - and a chance to play at WSL elite level - it was a disappointing crowd of only 432 today. That’s a real shame for an area of England known for its passion and knowledge of football, and maybe a wake-up call to those in control of Sunderland women’s football to do more - with maybe the home stadium being somewhere a lot closer to Sunderland for a start!
Anyway, not our problem I realise. The Royals, after their long trip back south, have more to work on and focus on in training if they’re to be ready when back in action for another change in kick-off time (why do they keep doing this??) next Sunday, at midday, at the SCL Stadium against visitors Sheffield United (who suffered a crushing 4-0 home defeat to Birmingham). See you there!