Date: 26th March 2012 at 1:20pm
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Ordinarily, I produce the Ladies and Reserves column on a Friday. However, this week I will defer in favour of a detailed match report of the Ladies 2-1 win over Everton yesterday. The Ladies will now go their separate ways as qualifiers for the Euro 2013 tournament take place this weekend. Whilst the Reserves don`t have another fixture until April 10th. The deadline for loans to football league clubs expired on Friday, with Nico Yennaris, Benik Afobe and Chuks Aneke all exiting the club to extend their experience. Afobe and Yennaris played for Reading and Notts County respectively, whilst Chuks Aneke scored for Preston on Saturday. Therefore, I imagine news will be rather light in the coming week.

Having disposed of Lincoln City in the 5th Round and with one semi final appearance already booked with a 3-2 aggregate win over Gothenburg in the Champions League, Laura Harvey`s side were looking to continue their faultless start to the campaign. A thoroughly pleasant spring afternoon ensured a decent crowd at Meadow Park, with the East Stand seats bathed in warm sunshine. I took my seat next to the injured Kelly Smith, who was still on crutches and some way away from a return. Down below me, Katy Chapman`s family were present with plastic lunchboxes of pre made sandwiches. It`s one of the charms of attending women`s football. It has a familial vibe to it.

The last time the two sides had met in the Cup was the 2010 Final which Everton won. But there was rarely suggestion they`d repeat the feat yesterday. Having got back from Sweden on Thursday, Harvey made the one change, with 34 year old Rachel Yankey staring on the left in place of the young Danielle Carter. Steph Houghton, usually considered a roving right back, moved into midfield to try and utilise her bustling, positive style, with Alex Scott moving to right back. It had mixed results at first, with the rhythm of the midfield appearing a little upset by the change in tack, contributing to a scrappy opening.

Arsenal began much the brighter, but it was the Toffees that were the first to draw exhalation from the crowd. Fara Williams allowed the ball to run across her body before pinging a shot from 30 yards which had Byrne scrabbling, but flew just wide. However, Arsenal were soon in their rhythm and Houghton was the main source of threat. Everton sat deep on the edge of their own box and looked to hit on the counter, often crowding the Gunners out in the final third. Little and Houghton worked a neat one two on the right hand corner of the area, which saw Houghton drive an angled shot for goal, Everton and England keeper Rachel Brown tipped over.

At this point, I had an elderly gentleman in front of me who, unbelievably, did not stop whingeing for the entire match. Grumbling “Do you even know how to trap a ball?” and exclaiming to his mate next to him, but in that way that most loudmouth arseholes do at football, so everyone can hear what a frickin mastermind he is, “These girls aren`t as good as they used to be!” Even a patient and pretty quiet person like me was unable to resist shouting, “Oh, shut up!” Someone else offered, rather more pointedly, “How did they win the treble then?” He even saw fit to yell at Rachel Yankey, “Rachel, wake up!” at her as she stood a few yards from him. The shrapnel from the stare she gave him wounded even me in a case of ‘friendly fire` if ever I saw it.

What was incredible was that this man was in his late 70s at least. How do such miserable human beings live so long? I`m not suggesting Women`s football shouldn`t be taken seriously, but it was very out of place with the atmosphere you get at these games. The fact that we were positioned right next to the paddock housing the players` families made it seem even more brutal. A sunny Sunday afternoon in Hertfordshire watching one of the world`s most successful ever women`s sporting institutions does not appear to be the most fitting canvas upon which to splatter your misery.

In any case, Arsenal began to peg Everton back but struggled to find the ruthlessness in front of goal. Steph Houghton`s searching diagonal ball found Ellen White, put ended up just too wide to put her through on goal. White tucked the ball back to Little, whose shot from the edge of the ‘D` was again diverted over by Brown. Yankey then forced Everton left back Lindsay Johnson into an error on the by line, Yankey cut back to the onrushing Houghton, but the ball skipped up off the uneven turf just as she struck it and flew over into the garden of a neighbouring house. Thirty seconds later, Houghton was troubling Everton again. Latching onto Alex Scott`s deep cross, Houghton deftly flicked the ball over the onrushing Brown but the ball lobbed centimetres wide of the far post. The Gunners were getting closer.

But Everton-, who will be one of Arsenal`s principal challengers for the Women`s Super League, still offered enough threat to worry Arsenal. Jill Scott`s right wing cross looked destined to arrive on Hannigan`s boot in front of a yawning goal, but Ciara Grant threw herself at Hannigan`s feet to produce an outstanding tackle. Arsenal play with two wide strikers and a pivoting centre forward. What`s interesting about watching the Ladies is the fluidity and regularity with which they swap. Houghton is just as likely to pop up at centre forward as right back, ditto Alex Scott. Whilst Ellen White is Arsenal`s biggest goal threat from the right forward slot. Yankey is also capable of playing all across the front line. Kim Little starts in the number 10 role, but also often finds herself spearheading the attack. It would be nigh ion impossible to produce a graphic to demonstrate the formation and it makes Arsenal`s threat very varied.

Having spent most of the half in a more central position, Houghton soon reverted to the right, Yankey to the left, with White supported by the probing runs of Kim Little. It began to yield more joy; Little`s shift of feet caused Everton problems in the centre, with Houghton`s directness more serviceable on the flank. Little wriggled free of two Everton challenges on the edge of the box before firing a shot narrowly over. 0-0 was the half time score, but you felt an Arsenal goal was close. As the players skipped off to the dressing rooms, miserable old git began to audibly complain that “Byrne is not as good a keeper as Spencer.” (Rebecca Spencer is currently on loan at Sochaux and is Byrne`s heir apparent). Amusingly, at this stage most of those that had quietly withstood his moaning through the half were minded to speak up once Byrne became the object of his criticism. Can`t imagine why.

Arsenal began the second half with vigour and purpose. Yankey looked much more at home on the left, with Houghton on the right, Ellie White was able to produce menace in the box. It was a Yankey cross in the opening seconds of the match that saw White connect with a back post header that floated over when she really ought to have scored. Yankey again was causing Toffees right back Becky Easton all manner of trouble when she powered down the left to the touchline, Ludlow headed her cross back across goal and White craned her neck to head over again. This time however, the header was a more difficult one to execute. However, Everton came close to opening the scoring against the run of play when Ciara Grant misjudged a bounce half way inside her own half, the ball looped over head and into the path of Toni Duggan, who was clean through on goal, but her low effort clipped the base of the post and went out to safety.

Arsenal punished Everton in the most severe manner when Emma Byrne`s long kick was flicked on by Ludlow to Yankey. The Arsenal veteran produced another pinpoint cross to the back post and this time Ellen White got her header all right and powered past Rachel Brown. Two minutes later, the lead was doubled. Yankey again at the heart of the move, slicing Everton`s defence in half with a slide rule pass. Kim Little collected, checked back onto her right foot- holding off the attentions of Brook Chaplen, before lashing the ball past Brown.

By now, Arsenal were humming through the gears. Katy Chapman showed a neat change of feet to fox two Everton midfielders, before slipping pass into the channel for Little, her effort across goal trickled inches wide of the post with Brown well beaten. Little, who had the bit between her teeth, then curled a shot onto the roof of the net from 20 yards. But Arsenal began to tire, as you might expect from their midweek exertions. Carter replaced Yankey and Gemma Davison displaced Ellen White. The Toffees looked to take advantage and set up a tense finale against a tiring Arsenal side. Jill Scott`s left wing cross put Byrne in trouble under her own crossbar. With the sun obstructing her view, she fumbled and Michele Hinigan fumbled over the line, despite Fahey`s attempts to get back.

With 34 year old skipper Jayne Ludlow having played 90 minutes in Sweden on Wednesday, she was replaced by the younger legs of Jordan Nobbs to see out the final minutes. Nobbs was clearly acting on Harvey`s instruction to run down the clock as her first action was to take the ball to the corner flag. Everton tried gamely to find an equaliser, but a series of long balls were comfortably dealt with by Flaherty and Grant. Arsenal held on to qualify for their second semi final of the week. Now they face a fixture pile up, with the F.A. Cup semi final scheduled for the same day as the Champions League semi final first leg. (A WSL fixture with Doncaster Belles arranged for that day has already been moved due to the girls` progress in Europe). But nevertheless, it`s a happy scenario for Harvey to deal with and she certainly has the squad at her disposal. The draw for the semi final takes place later today. LD.

1.BYRNE, 22.SCOTT, 7.GRANT, 5.FLAHERTY, 19.FAHEY, 4.LUDLOW© (8.Nobbs `88), 17.CHAPMAN, 16.LITTLE, 2.HOUGHTON, 11.YANKEY (15.Carter `74), 9.E.WHITE (12.Davison `81). Unused: 5.F.White, 18.Ladd.

Update: Arsenal have been drawn to play Chelsea in the F.A. Cup semi final on Sunday, 29th April. The match will take place at a neutral venue, yet to be determined.

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