Monday, 27 February 2012

Keynsham and Bristol Academy handed tough cup tests

Keynsham Town Ladies will continue their record breaking Women's FA Cup run with a home tie against Premier League leaders Sunderland.

The Lady Ks thrashed Sheffield 5-2 at Crown Field on Sunday to make it into the last sixteen for the first time in their history. Naomi Clipston, Kayleigh Sage and a Leanne Lapham penalty put Town three goals up on their Premier League North opponents, though Jodie Michalska pulled two back for Sheffield to put the game on a knife edge. Keynsham rode out the storm, however, Polly Wardle and Ashley Reinecke adding the gloss to the final score, allowing Lapham's miss from her second spot kick to go unpunished.

The cup success will come as welcome respite to Town, who are currently battling relegation from the Premier League South, one half of the third tier of the women's game in England. They currently sit one place above the drop zone on goal difference.

Sunderland have previous in the cup, reaching the final in 2009, and will prove a hefty obstacle for Keynsham's slim quarter-final hopes. Currently, the Black Cats top the Premier League's national division and are revered as the strongest team outside of the top flight Women's Super League, having also claimed the Premier title last term.

The region's only WSL team, Bristol Academy, will also be involved, having been given a bye to the fifth round. The Vixens were also handed a home tie, Leeds United the opposition scheduled to visit the Stoke Gifford Stadium and open Academy's 2012 competitive campaign.

Despite their status as one of the eight semi-professional Super League clubs, progression will be no simple task for the 2011 finalists; Leeds are just three points off Sunderland at the top of the Premier League and have not lost since facing the table toppers in December.

The potential reward for Academy reaching a second consecutive final will not just be the glory of a showpiece national event, as this year's final is being held at Ashton Gate.

Bath based Larkhall Athletic will look on at the draw in envy, as they were unable to repeat their vanquishing of Tottenham in the previous round, falling 3-0 to Brighton & Hove Albion at the Withdean Stadium yesterday. Had they produced another upset against a third tier club, a trip to WSL Chelsea would have been their reward.

All ties are pencilled in to be played on Sunday, March 11th. The full draw is as follows:

Bristol Academy v Leeds United
Barnet v Doncaster Rovers Belles
Charlton Athletic v Blackburn Rovers
Lincoln Ladies v Arsenal
Birmingham City v Liverpool
Manchester City v Everton
Chelsea v Brighton & Hove Albion
Keynsham Town v Sunderland

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Defences hold firm in trapdoor tussle

This was a result that neither side wanted, but both would take. Defeat for either Plymouth Argyle or Dagenham and Redbridge would have put a sizable dent into their quest to avoid the fall off the Football League precipice, but nobody was about to relinquish any ground at Home Park.

It was a frustrating afternoon for everyone involved, the players who had been training in the hope of grasping a season changing win, and the fans, for whom the match had been billed as the biggest of the season. In hindsight, after Saturday's dour displays, it should simply have been the biggest of the season yet.

It was the home side, unbeaten in three and coming off the back of a morale boosting 4-0 win at Accrington, who edged an even first half, before running much of the second, striking the left-hand upright twice within a minute.

The game was low on quality and high on ball trajectory, containing all the hallmarks of a match between two teams fighting for their lives, a scenario that Pilgrims boss Carl Fletcher had predicted in the build up:

"We knew it was going to be scrappy," said the rookie manager. "We spoke all week that we were going to have to earn the right to play and scrap away, and that it was going to be an ugly game.

"We were well aware what was coming and that we had to be patient and, to be fair, the lads have done everything but score a goal. We had three great chances in the first half, hit the post in the twice in the second half and the keeper has pulled off a couple of saves."

But, above all, Fletcher defined the synopsis for his battling squad: "It was vital that we didn't lose; that was a big one for us."

Trepidation was the word of the day and fractured nerves were on show, Maxime Blanchard gave away an early free kick after fouling Jon Nurse 25 yards out; Matt Saunders shot from the resultant dead ball too weak to really trouble Argyle custodian Jake Cole

Nick Chadwick had the first notable effort from open play, blazing over with a sweeping shot following a low cross from the right, owing to a frustrating opening period for the bullish striker who, along with partner Alex MacDonald, found the assistant referee's flag the most challenging opponent.

The advertising hoardings behind either goal were seeing more of the ball than the keepers gloves, Greens captain Paul Wotton dragging a long range drive off target, Nurse failing to get enough purchase on his header, glancing Damien McCrory's left-wing cross wide of the goal for the Daggers.

With the break swiftly approaching, Conor Hourihane wasted the best opportunity of the lot for the Pilgrims. In a situation similar to Chadwick's early profligate strike, the Irish midfielder produced the same end result, skying the ball into the swathes of empty seats between the home and away fans, all the while under little defensive pressure.

When referee Dean Whitestone blew to resume the game, Argyle began to take the initiative. Within seconds of the restart Hourihane had another chance to put the Devon club into the lead, though his final shot was hit straight at debutant Jonathan Bond.

Brian Woodall's effort soared into his own fans at the other end, but it proved only seconds of respite as Ashley Hemmings and Robbie Williams both tried their luck for Plymouth, though their gambles did not pay off.

Each side made only two of their allotted substitutions, but it was Argyle's Luke Daley who had the biggest impact. He and Marcus Bignot attempted to work a move on the right-hand side of the penalty area, and though Dagenham broke it up, the ball squirmed into Daley's path, catching the visiting defence on the back foot and almost resulting in the lead, the wingers prod cannoning off the post.

Not 50 seconds had passed before the woodwork was rattling again. Williams, running on to a half cleared corner, could not have caught his left foot drive any sweeter, though neither could it have hit the post more emphatically.

Bond still had to be on hand to tip two further long range strikes round the post - MacDonald and Williams the players once again denied - the game finally petering out with a host of free kicks during the four minutes of stoppage time, leaving both teams frustrated, but Dagenham feeling slightly better of the two, even though they remain the team propping up the Football League.

John Still underlined Plymouth's recent results, while also sticking to his philosophy on playing the game.

"They've been on a decent run of form and they're a big club, regardless of their league position," said Still, "but we stuck at it and worked hard."

"They had two good efforts in the second half that hit the post without putting us under any sustained pressure. We never try to draw, the changes we made were to bring on attacking players. We want to remain positive."

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Bristol Academy Confirm Fixtures

Bristol Academy have all but finalised their fixture list for the upcoming Women's Super League season, starting and finishing their campaign on Merseyside.

The Vixens begin with a trip to face Liverpool on Sunday, April 8th and will hope to set a precedent to the rest of the league against the side that finished bottom of the inaugural WSL season in 2011, claiming just a single victory in the process.

Stoke Gifford Stadium's opening league fixture will see Academy square off with Lincoln Ladies on April 21st, a 6PM kick to avoid a clash with Bristol City's final home game of the season against Barnsley.

Chelsea will be the final visitors to the Filton College's WISE campus in the penultimate league fixture on September 22nd before the season finishes away to Everton, kicking off at 2PM on October 7th. The only match yet to be arranged is the visit to Lincoln.

Monday also saw the draw for the second edition of the Continental Cup, which will feature all eight of the Super League clubs. Academy were drawn into group one of the new look format, converting from the straight knockout tournament played following the completion of the 2011 season.

Doncaster Rovers Belles will host the Vixens, who fell at the first hurdle to Lincoln last term, three weeks before the league matches begin. Birmingham will visit Bristol while a trip to Everton is also on the cards; the top two sides in each group moving into September's semi-finals.

Following the FA's announcement that this year's Women's FA Cup final will be held at Ashton Gate, Mark Sampson's team will also harbour ambitions of reaching a second consecutive final in their home city, having lost the 2011 showpiece 2-0 to Arsenal at Coventry's Ricoh Arena.

The club will enter at the fifth round stage, where they will hope to avoid their top flight rivals, most likely playing on March 11th.

Pre-season training continues for the squad, who followed up their opening win over Tottenham with a ruthless 10-0 thrashing of Plymouth Argyle on Sunday.

The full fixture list can be seen below, with home games shown in bold:

11.03.12 - Women's FA Cup 5th Round (TBA)
17/18.03.12 - Doncaster Rovers Belles - Continental Cup Round 1
08.04.12 - Liverpool - 2PM
21.04.12 - Lincoln - 6PM
29.04.12 - Birmingham City - 2PM
06.05.12 - Chelsea - 2PM
12/13.05.12 - Birmingham City - Contiental Cup Round 2
19.05.12 - Doncaster Rovers Belles - 6PM
26.05.12 - Women's FA Cup Final (Ashton Gate)
30.05.12 - Arsenal - 7.15PM
9/10.06.12 - Everton - Contiental Cup Round 3
23.06.12 - Everton - 6PM
07.07.12 - Birmingham City - 6PM
18.08.12 - Liverpool - 6PM
30.08.12 - Arsenal - 7.45PM
09.09.12 - Doncaster Rovers Belles - 2PM
22.09.12 - Chelsea - 6PM
07.10.12 - Everton - 2PM
TBA - Lincoln

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Second half double seals Rovers win

Just as the Bristol Rovers squad deserve praise for their 2-1 victory over Morecambe on Saturday, the Memorial Stadium ground staff deserve their own acclaim for beating the freezing West Country temperatures and making sure the match went ahead.

Head groundsman Richard Allsworth and his team worked throughout the nights building up to the game to keep an eye on the playing surface. Both frost and rain covers protected the turf, while hot air blowing heaters aided the efforts to keep the pitch supple for the Lancastrians visit.

Their labours were duly rewarded as the Pirates pushed on from a dour first half performance to send Jim Bentley's charges on the four hour return journey with nothing to bare.

The game finally opened up in the 57th minute, Lee Brown tapping in from close range; Scott McGleish making it two with a penalty. Substitute Kevin Ellison thrashed in a late goal which, despite continuous late pressure from the visitors, ended as nothing more than a consolation.

It could have been a very different game had Morecambe made their first half forays into the Rovers penalty area count, journeyman forward Jason Price scuffing a shot after just 30 seconds following a defensive lapse.

Phil Jevons, the subject of derisive howls from the home support due to his association with their cross-city rivals, was the next to threaten the hosts' goal. Cian Bolger mistimed a header, allowing Jevons to rush in and clip an effort over the indecisive Michael Poke, though he was left in visible anguish as his shot struck the right hand upright.

Pirates skipper Matt Gill blazed a thumping volley over the top as his side attempted to gain a foothold in the match.

McGleish forced Chris Kettings into a full stretch save, pushing the ball onto the post, before Gill wasted another opportunity, hitting wide after the visiting custodian fumbled when challenged by the boisterous McGleish.

There was an increase in quality from the off in the second half, most notably from the home side who switched from 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 formation, bringing the desired effect soon enough.

Eliot Richards, a first half replacement for Joe Anyinsah, went on a marauding run down the right flank, cutting inside and beating three defenders in one move. The 20 year old proceeded to send a teasing low cross goalwards, Matt Harrold flicking the ball towards the back post where Brown was on hand to emphatically hammer into the roof of the net from a yard out.

Fifteen minutes from time the lead went from one to two via the penalty spot. Rovers broke and former Shrimper Craig Stanley played debutant substitute Matthew Lund into the penalty area, the Stoke loanee turning back on Danny Carlton, only to be dragged down by the arm.

Despite missing his previous spot kick in an FA Cup tie with Aston Villa, McGleish kept his cool to slam home his ninth goal of the season, his first as a starting player since November.

Looking to see out the match, the home side were playing five in midfield, but none of the quartered quintet were at fault for the Morecambe goal. Cian Bolger swiped at fresh air, allowing Jordan Burrow to sprint towards Poke who saved his initial drive, but could do no more than parry it into the path of Ellison to ruthlessly thunder a goal back.

It was Ellison who came closest to claiming an undeserved point for the travellers, unleashing a stinging volley that Poke had to be one hand to tip over the bar, sending the ground staff away with an unseasonably warm feeling inside.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Sessegnon settles north-east derby

THE only true blip on Martin O'Neill's start to life in charge of Sunderland was the failure to finish of local rivals Middlesbrough in the FA Cup barely two weeks ago, especially as the original fourth round tie was played at the home that could easily be redubbed 'The Fortress of Light'. The rectification at the Riverside on Wednesday night in a Tees-Wear derby that huffed and puffed but failed to provide any true quality will be satisfactory for the Northern Irishman.

The fact that the first game finished 1-1 was a disappointment among a set of supporters that have been on an almost opiate high, more pertinently because of the denial of a perfectly good goal by a poor piece of judgement from a linesman.

This replay, settled by Stephane Sessegnon's strike in the 23rd minute of extra time, puts Sunderland into a last-16 tie with Arsenal in just a couple of weekends time. The Beninese attacker's goal was required to finish of a plucky Boro, who had drawn level through Lucas Jutkiewicz in the second half, following Jack Colback's stunning opener.

With the in-form Black Cats desperately chasing the unlikely top six finish that would grant a Europa League spot, a run to a Wembley final could provide O'Neill's charges with a berth in continental competition come next term.

Middlesbrough started the game compact and fluent, looking to work Sunderland out of the tie, but remaining wary of their opponents' Premiership quality, though neither side's final product was worthy of creating a derby hero. Julio Arca, an adopted son of north-east football, wastefully shot at Simon Mignolet from a perplexing angle for Boro; January loan signing Jutkiewicz's effort flying closer to the South Stand roof than it did towards the Belgian's goal in the opening exchanges.

The home team continued to push and a fairly innocuous free kick almost produced the opener. A woefully timed defensive header allowed Seb Hines to stretch for a volley, forcing the Sunderland custodian into an impressive reaction stop.

That's not to write O'Neill's on-song team out of the script, it's just that they weren't producing any drama. When the Black Cats did possess a momentary threat, it was soon wiped out by effortful defending; Sessegnon flicking the ball into Michael Turner's path, only for the London-born defender to dawdle, allowing Matthew Bates to fly in with a block to maintain the parity.

And yet, despite their lacking edge, Middlesbrough were right to remain cagey of the Premier League class. John O'Shea sent a high ball onto Fraizer Campbell's head, the 24 year-old nodding the ball down for Colback to control and hit a magnificent swerving volley onto the angle of post and crossbar and into the net.

It wasn't a lead that Sunderland truly deserved, though neither were Boro worthy of an advantage themselves. Still, it proved the spark for an entertaining finish to first half proceedings, the Championship side refusing to take their bow without a fight. Phil Bardsley was forced to throw himself feet first at a sweetly struck Tony McMahon drive, while Mignolet was similarly required to leave the ground, pushing Curtis Main's stinging effort wide of his right-hand post.

Where the first half had given the visitors a goal against the run of play, the second spun 180 degrees; the hosts finding a reply with just over 30 minutes to go as Jutkiewicz volleyed into the bottom corner after Main's flying header dropped invitingly for the ex-Everton youngster. The gleeful look on Jutkiewicz's face as he celebrated in front of the home end was not only down to the equaliser itself, but for the release of tension that came with his first goal since signing on loan from Coventry, after four goalless appearances in a red shirt.

Sunderland slowly worked their way back into the half, almost snatching the lead back through Phil Bardsley, only to see the right back's shot cannon off the post with Jason Steele in the Middlesbrough goal flying despairingly for the unreachable ball.

Three second half substitutes did not provide Boro with the impetus to take the game in normal time, the seats at either end receiving a peppering from the frustratingly inaccurate forward lines. The moronic pair of pitch invaders, one of whom seemingly attempted to slide tackle Justin Hoyte, proving the only vaguely newsworthy point as the game limped into extra time.

It was one of those subs, namely Marvin Emnes, who could and, certainly in the eyes of the home support, probably should have given Middlesbrough the lead, but his shot from fourteen yards was charged down after Hoyte had burst past Kieran Richardson to lay the ball into his path.

The Dutchman's dallying proved costly as, with just seven minutes remaining, Sessegnon provided the decisive blow, sweeping a finish past Steele to secure the home tie with Arsenal on February 18th, with the added bonus of a fourth live game on ITV in as many matches in this season's FA Cup.