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Thursday, 20 June 2013

FAWSL Midseason review Part one.

As we are halfway through the season i thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on the season to date and how each of the sides has got on so far. First up we shall take a look at the three main contenders for the championship.  

Liverpool. 

As we head into the mid season break its Liverpool who have set the pace, which is a massive change from the previous two seasons when the club finished rock bottom of the division. This prompted a huge clear out as manager Matt Beard; who received significant backing from the club's owners, remodelled virtually his whole first team squad. And so far it has paid huge dividends as the club reached the semi finals of the FA cup (where they lost 2-1 to Arsenal) and also the Continental cup to go along side their excellent progress in the league.
One of the main reasons for Liverpool's success so far this season has been their fantastic goal scoring record. The Reds have played 6 league games so far and in three of those they have managed to score 4 goals. Whats even more impressive is the fact that two of these scorelines came away from home; a crushing 4-1 win at Everton in the derby,  and the one that really made people sit up and take note; the 4-0 victory over champions Arsenal at the Emirates.  In their other league games they have completed the double over Lincoln (1-0 away and 3-2 at home) with their only league defeat of the season so far being a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea. They won their Continental cup group by grinding out a 1-1 draw at Everton, a tight 1-0 home win over Doncaster, and another 4-0 away win this time at Chelsea.
Liverpools great form has seen three of their players, Lucy Bronze, Gemma Bonner, and Fara Williams all called up for the England squad for this seasons European championships, although strangely enough there is no place for striker Natasha Dowie, a close season signing from Everton who has ten goals in 12 games in all competitions this season. American defender Whitney Engen has also spent time away with the USA national side, but faces tough competition to break into the top side in the world.
The big question on everybody's lips is can Liverpool keep it up? In my view we won't have to wait long after the break to find out, as the first three games back will define Liverpool's season. First up is a huge home game with Arsenal who sit eight points behind Liverpool but have two games in hand. A home win for Liverpool would be a huge blow for Arsenal's title challenge but a win for the Gunners would really put them back in the mix. Three days later Lincoln are back in town for the Continental cup semi final and although the Lady Imps are struggling in the league, they ran Liverpool very close in the league match at Liverpool which finished 3-2 in favor of the hosts. After that Liverpool face the long trip to Bristol who are level on points with them. Interestingly enough the two sides that share top spot are yet to play each other this season, the second meeting between the teams is the last game of the season. If Liverpool can avoid losing either of the Arsenal/Bristol games then they will have to be considered favorites for the title.

Bristol Academy 

Bristol are the league's suprise package and argueably the most entertaining side to watch this season. The club lost its star player from the 2012 season in the summer when Jess Fishlock left the club to join Seattle Reign in America, and while Jess and her new side are yet to win a game (at the time of writing) and are bottom of the league in the USA, Bristol are level on points with Liverpool at the top of the FAWSL and had a great run in the FA cup where they lost 3-0 in the final to Arsenal.
Like Liverpool, Bristol were aggressive in the close season and brought in an array of attacking options. Firstly dead ball specialist Lucy Staniforth arrived from Lincoln to provide the service to the forward players. The Vixens already had a good forward line with Natasha Harding and Spanish star Laura Del Rio but strengthened by signing a second Spaniard in Natalia Pablo Sanchen. A familiar face also rejoined the club when Gwen Harries rejoined the club from Everton.
Every one of manager Mark Sampson's side has played their part this season but keeper Siobhan Chamberlain has been a real star for the club as has Pablo Sanchen who has socred 7 goals in ten games in all competitions.
The club enjoyed vastly different fortunes in the two cup competitions. They reached the FA Cup final the hard way, as they were drawn against FAWSL sides in every round. Although they never really got going in the  final (a game covered live by Sports International magazine) The experience of the day will undoubtably help the young players in the long haul. The Continental cup however was a different kettle of fish as Bristol lost all three group games to Birmingham, Lincoln, and Arsenal thus finishing bottom of their group.
Bristol have also collected 15 points from 6 league games. There one loss being a 3-2 home defeat to Arsenal. Their fixture list has a rather lopsided look to it as they have only played one league game away from home (a 2-0 win at Birmingham) While they have defeated Lincoln, Doncaster, Chelsea, and Everton at home. The second half of the season will be a challenge for them with two matches against Liverpool, a trip to Arsenal, plus long  trips up to Lincoln, Everton, and Doncaster. It is also worth noting that their last three games are all away from home. They will also have to cope without Lucy Staniforth who suffered a bad knee injury in the FA cup final that has ruled her out for the season.

Arsenal

As the league takes its midseason break Arsenal sit in an unfamiliar 5th place in the division on 7 points. The key factor to take into account however is that the defending champions have only played 4 league matches, which is two less that the two sides at the top. Further more they still have the top two to play; Liverpool away and Bristol at home. Given these facts Arsenal are still undoubtably in the thick of the title race.
Arsenal have dominated the Women's game over the past decade and early on in the season it looked like they were once again the team to beat. A 6-0 thrashing of Birmingham City in the quarter final of the FA cup sent out a clear message of their intent.
There are a couple of reasons why Arsenal have up to three games in hand on other FAWSL sides, the main one being their Champions League run. Their progress in that competition was quite smooth until they came up against eventual champions Vfl Wolfsburg in the semi finals. The German champions eased to a 2-0 win in London in the the 1st leg. The Gunners did put up a fight in the 2nd leg but still lost 1-2 to bow out 4-1 on aggregate. This left the club a little punch drunk and things went from bad to worse as Liverpool thumped Arsenal 4-0 at the Emirates stadium to hand the champions their first league defeat since 2011. One defeat nearly turned into two in the next game at Lincoln, as after having the better of the game Arsenal fell behind to an 89th minute goal.  Arsenal however hit straight back thanks to a Steph Houghton 30 yard effort that could well win the goal of the season award. The Gunners then went on to score an impressive 3-2 win at Bristol and rounded off their league games before the break with a 2-1 win over Chelsea in the London derby.
Although they tasted defeat in the Champions league the club has enjoyed success in the two domestic cup competitions. They lifted their 12th FA Cup with a dominant 3-0 victory over Bristol in the final at Doncaster. In the Continental Cup Arsenal finished top of group A with a draw at Lincoln and victories over Birmingham and Bristol. Their reward for winning the group is a home semi final against Everton.
Arsenal do have a lot of games to play in the second half of the season but if any team can cope with a busy fixture list it's Arsenal. They have been unlucky with injuries this season but in later weeks they started to get their players back. One factor that could come into play is the Euros. Arsenal have 6 players away with England (more than any other FAWSL club) so they will hope they don't suffer any more injury setbacks. If all six come back fit and full of confidence after a good championship for England, then the club will be in a great position to once again challenge for the championship. Their first game back after the break at Liverpool could have a big say in where the title ends up this season. It's a game Arsenal can't afford to lose. One thing is certain; the battle for the title and the second Champions league spot will be both fascinating and closely contested.

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