Reading Women officially exited the Conti Cup last night, in front of a bumper crowd at the SCL Stadium, losing 0-6 to Arsenal, with a hat-trick from Stina Blackstenius and three more goal from Caitlin Foord, Laia Codina and Beth Meth.
This was the last of the (four) Conti Cup matches for the Royals, who finished bottom of the group, on goal difference, picking up just two points in the campaign with a penalty shoot-out victory against WSL side Bristol City last month.
It’s an odd league cup format as, when the original draw was made at the start of the season, there were only four teams in total, with Bristol City, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton making up the group. Arsenal were added to Reading’s group after being knocked out of the Champions League early.
It was a second 0-6 Conti Cup defeat in the campaign, with Reading losing to another WSL side, Spurs, back in October. Last night’s scoreline wasn’t entirely unexpected and, as bizarre as it may sound, feels like a respectable scoreline considering the strength of depth (and substitutions made) Arsenal had to call upon.
It was always going to be a mismatch with the talent, budget, league and professional status of the two teams being incomparable. And, of course, with Reading still under the control and ownership of Dai Yongge!
Talking of him, it was especially pleasing to see that the message (of protest against fit owners) is still growing and continuing to gain momentum, with all fans, in the 16th minute, standing and clapping in unity. Thank you to everyone.
Normally this is the sort of match in which you would expect Liam Gilbert to make changes and rest a few players, ready for the serious campaign of ‘Plan A’: keeping Reading in the Championship.
With four players leaving in January though, the Reading manager doesn’t have this luxury, and the only senior squad members sitting out last night’s match appeared to be Rachel Dugdale and Deanna Cooper (and Ava Kuyken only in early rehab after her ACL surgery). With Emily Orman on loan (from Chelsea), Rose Kite released in January and Jacqueline Burns returning from a long-term injury, there was no reserve goalkeeper named on the substitutes bench.
Reading: Annets, (GK), Wade (Jarvis, 85), Mayi Kith, Smith, Hendrix (Captain), Woodham (Roberts, 68), Longhurst, Houssein, Estcourt (Elwood, 68), Primmer (Hunt, 75), Wellings (Perry, 75)
Unused subs: Kennedy, Wilson,
Yellow cards: Primmer, 41
From kick-off it was clear to see the damage-limitation strategy, with Reading lining up in a 5-4-1 formation. Lauren Wade and Lily Woodham were in the wing back roles and Charlie Wellings had the thankless task of the lone-striker role.
As expected, Reading found themselves defending, right from the start, with goalkeeper Eve Annets called into action several times in the opening quarter of an hour, and pretty much throughout the match (with the end-of-match stats showing that Arsenal enjoyed 73% possession).
Reading were looking to counter-attack and, in the 19th minute, did get a shot on target after a run and long-range effort from Wade, down the right-hand side, but it was comfortably saved by Sabrina D’Angelo in the visitors’ goal.
Reading held off until the 23rd minute when Foord picked up the ball in the centre of the Reading penalty area, turned and finished with a right-foot shot past Annets and into the bottom left-hand corner. 0-1.
The pressure was relentless and the Royals survived another scare when Victoria Pelova rattled the near post with a shot from the Arsenal right on the half-hour mark.
Just minutes later, Arsenal doubled the lead, with Blackstenius bagging her first of the night after Foord capitalised on a poor pass from goalkeeper Annets and passed to Steph Catley, who in turn found Blackstenius for a clinical move and finish. 0-2.
As the board showing four minutes of time to be added on was raised (and hopes of getting into the half-time break with limited damage) Blackstenius grabbed her second goal of the night. Woodham was unable to intercept an Arsenal attack and Kyra Cooley-Cross squared the ball to the Gunners striker to give the visitors a 0-3 half-time lead.
The second half was more of the same and a great challenge from Easther Mayi Kith stopped the visitors from extending their lead just minutes after the restart.
Unfortunately it didn’t last long and, in the 51st minute, Laia Codina headed in a cross from Catley, on the Arsenal left. 0-4.
Reading’s second and only other shot (both on target!) came after a good move from Woodham, to Tia Primmer, to Wellings, who struck her shot well, stinging the gloves of the Arsenal goalkeeper but it was still saved comfortably.
On the hour mark, with warnings of still to come, Blackstenius came close, her header hitting the post from close range.
It was probably a record (Women’s match) attendance at the SCL, with many, many Arsenal fans in the stands. The biggest cheer of the evening came when Arsenal made their first substitutions - with England Lionesses captain Leah Williamson making her first appearance, after recovering from an ACL injury. If this introduction wasn’t frightening enough for the Reading team and fans, she was joined by fellow England teammate Beth Mead!
Both teams used all five of their substitutions in the second half and Gilbert must have been pleased to be able to introduce Bethan Roberts (after her injury) and Mae Hunt (making her first appearance since promotion from the academy to the senior squad), alongside Amelia Elwood, Lulu Jarvis and Maddison Perry (what a way to spend the evening of your 18th birthday! One she won’t forget).
On 80 minutes, the goal of the night - and a dream goal from Arsenal (which to be fair was a delight to watch...) - came when Williamson executed a perfect long pass to Mead, who controlled and rocketed a half-volleyed shot past Annets, her acrobatic dive unable to get a hand on the swerving curl of the ball. 0-5.
Arsenal, and Blackstenius, completed the scoring after the Reading goalkeeper - under pressure - got caught on the ball and left a simple tap-in for the striker inside the six-yard box. 0-6.
Pre-match, Gilbert spoke of the “occasion all of us are looking forward to” with the players able to “play against the best” and “not hide away from”. I hope the players did enjoy it, as a growth and learning experience, and they certainly shouldn’t be downhearted with the result or performance.
Let’s hope they can take something from this match and use it for the remaining 11 games of the Championship season, starting with the away match at Lewes on Sunday January 28 (kick-off 2pm). See you there!