In the home of the catenaccio on Wednesday afternoon, Arsenal Ladies belied a severely hampered commencement to the domestic season to deliver a sucker-punch of a performance that the most famed of the Italian counter attacking specialists would have been proud of to book their slot in the semi-finals of the Champions League for the third successive season.
On the day, Niamh Fahey’s fourth minute strike after Ellen White had knocked on Rachel Yankey’s corner proved enough to consign ASD Torres to the almost rans, but truthfully the damage had been done in Arsenal’s first-leg 3-1 victory when the 2007 champions tore apart their Italian opponents with a display of attack verve and intent.
Despite having seen their only regulation domestic fixture since the appointment of new manager Shelley Kerr – an FA Cup appointment with Nottingham Forest – postponed twice through inclement weather conditions, the country’s re-eminent women’s team showed remarkable poise in their two legs against well-regarded Italian opposition to book their third semi-final appearance in as many years. Having tasted defeat at the penultimate stage in each of the last two years, though, the North Londoners will be desperate to pursue another shot at the title they so memorably won six years ago when set out as clear underdogs.
Should they do so, new manager Kerr will be indebted both to former-manager Laura Harvey, now heading up Seattle Reign, for taking the team to the quarter final stage and to the still-improving centre-half Gilly Flaherty, whose succession of heroic blocks and last-ditch tackles alongside Emma Byrne’s heroics in the Arsenal goal ensured that ASD Torres were never given a sniff once Fahey had put the away side in control of the tie with her early away goal.
In truth, a 1-0 victory neither flattered nor under-rewarded an Arsenal team who were reliant on some outstanding last-woman defending to retain their clean sheet, but equally could have further extended their lead. Good opportunities presented themselves to both captain-for-the-day Steph Houghton and highly-regarded midfielder Jordan Nobbs, whose direct running and insightful passing made her a threat throughout the match, leading a number of counter-attacks as the Italians threatened to impose themselves on the game.
Arsenal now stand to face Wolfsburg in the semi finals with the German side having overturned a first-leg deficit again Russian side Rossiyanka. Arsenal were beaten at the same stage of the competition by German opposition two years ago, when Frankfurt put paid to their continental hopes, but with the team having dominated their domestic league in the years since, Kerr’s team will be confident of booking a slot in the final against likely opponents, Lyon, the acknowledged stars of women’s football at Europe’s domestic level.
The Gunners’ continued strong performance in European competition demonstrates, again, the sheer weight of the task facing domestic rivals in overhauling the 2-times WSL champions and raises one truly fundamental question about women’s football in this country. With England’s finest having shown, again an ability to better teams afforded a more professional style training regime and programme, one must ask how long the country’s elite teams can continue to effectively perform when offered only a part-time training regime. With the home nations producing an astonishing depth of talent across the board, one wonders at what point England’s ladies teams gain acknowledgement as their country’s best chance of both club and international level honours.
Image from UEFA.com – thank you!