Date: 31st May 2012 at 12:47pm
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Tumbleweed might be blowing across the fields of London Colney at the moment, but the club still has activity a plenty. Beginning with the Arsenal Ladies and last night, they faced Bristol Academy in the WSL in front of ESPN`s live cameras. Things have been difficult for Laura Harvey`s side of late as injuries and a congested fixture list have caught up with them. They travelled to the West Country having won just once in their last five games- taking in a couple of semi final defeats along the way. They had also only managed one clean sheet in their last ten outings.

With Birmingham breathing down their necks, three points off the Gunners at the top and facing Chelsea tonight, Arsenal needed the points to get their season back on track. Once again, midfield lynchpin Jayne Ludlow was not fit enough to anchor the midfield having been rushed back from a claf injury, so Steph Houghton undertook that duty. Steph had been an attacking right back but has converted into midfield since the re-signing of Alex Scott. Julie Fleeting is still on maternity leave, Kelly Smith is not back in full training until July and Ellen White`s back injury keeps her out. (Though Ludlow and White could be back for the Chelsea game). As a result, Arsenal are generally playing without a fixed striker and relying on Kim Little`s goals from central midfield.

Last night Jordan Nobbs played the central striker role. Bristol coach Mark Sampson committed tactical suicide by lining up with a back three. Given that Arsenal`s threat comes mainly from their flanks in a front three, it caused them problems all night. With the injury problems upfront, Gemma Davison has been given a chance to shine in the absence of Ellie White and her electrifying pace ripped The Vixens (Bristol`s genuine nickname) to shreds. Davison and Yankey swapped flanks, but it was from the right she wreaked most havoc. Arsenal were denied a clear penalty after Jemma Rose clearly handled Yankey`s cross inside the area. Bristol`s harrying game was dealt a blow when tenacious midfielder Alex Windell twisted her knee and was replaced after 22 minutes. Yankey twice found herself denied from close range by Siobhan Chamberlain.

But Arsenal eased themselves into a first half lead in controversial circumstances. Katy Chapman won a typically well timed challenge on Dutch international Jess Fishlock, but as the pair fell to the ground, Chapman accidentally caught Fishlock in the face with her boot as both tumbled. Chapman waved the referee to alert him to the head injury but he didn`t comply. Arsenal played on, Houghton slipping the ball into the right channel for Davison and she smashed a no nonsense finish across Chamberlain and into the top corner. Davison`s superhuman pace had Bristol backing off all evening long and Davison assisted the second.

She lead a breakaway down the right hand side, motoring past ex Arsenal defender Angharad James before sliding a low cross to the back post. Here, Jordan Nobbs had time to control and pick her spot in the bottom corner. Nobbs ought to have made it 3 right on half time too, but she blazed another low Davison cross over the bar from close range. The second half performance was more controlled. Chamberlain again made good saves from Yankey and Little. Bristol obviously decided damage limitation was in order as they moved their wide players back to virtual full backs to counter the threat posed by Davison. But they couldn`t stop the 25 year old laying on the 3rd goal in the final minute, as she again roasted poor left back Corrine Yorston and cut the ball back for substitute Jennifer Beattie to side foot into the net.

Since her spring move from the States, Davison has had a tough time at Arsenal. Behind the free scoring Ellie White on the right and unable to dislodge the experienced Rachel Yankey on the left. I spoke to Ciara Grant a few weeks back and she had said she felt Davison would be a regular soon enough. I find it difficult to imagine there is a faster player in the WSL and, pleasingly, she appears to have a great touch too, which makes the option to switch play to her on the flank an inviting one. Every time she got the ball in midfield last night, Houghton was looking for the diagonal to Davison. Much like Walcott in the men`s side I suppose, her pace offers a threat that opposing defences don`t like to handle. The danger is, if opposing teams double up on her, Arsenal have runners from midfield such as Little and Houghton who are athletic enough to run into any extra space. Ditto Alex Scott, whose overlapping runs from right back also present a danger to other defences.

Elsewhere in the women`s game, Birmingham City won a thoroughly absorbing F.A. Cup Final on penalties against Chelsea at Ashton Gate on Saturday. Birmingham twice came from behind to force a shootout. Ex Arsenal keeper Rebecca Spencer saved Gemma Bonner`s spot kick, whilst another ex Gunner, Karen Carney, tucked away the Blues` final conversion. The F.A. will however be slightly concerned by this year`s attendance at Ashton Gate, which was recorded as 8,723. This compared to last year`s 13,885 that saw Arsenal beat Bristol Academy at the Ricoh Arena in 2011 and the 17,505 that converged on the City Ground in 2010 as Everton beat Arsenal in the Final.

On one hand, the fact that Arsenal were not in the Final will have hit the attendance. Arsenal have a big fanbase all over the country and a successful women`s team to boot, which brings out the neutrals. Last night`s game for instance attracted a 1,100 crowd. Bristol normally get around 300 and this match was on TV to boot. But it might be instructive to the F.A. when deciding venues for the Final. Around ten years ago, nearly all of the finals were hosted in London (particularly South London- I saw Arsenal Ladies collect the Cup at The Den, The Valley and Selhurst Park in my teenage years). It`s understandable that the F.A. want to get it out on the road and spread the appeal of the women`s game. But logistically, Birmingham and Chelsea`s support bases are a long way from Bristol. Maybe I`m missing something but I can`t imagine hosting a Ladies Cup Final requires too much in terms of security planning. Perhaps a more compromised sort of decision could be reached later in the day to at least mitigate the prospect of a low crowd.

Arsenal`s next game is on Sunday, 10th June against Chelsea in the Continental Cup. The game is at Borehamwood`s Meadow Lane with tickets £5 adults and £2.50 concessions. The next WSL fixture will be against title rivals Birmingham City at Borehamwood on Sunday, 24th June, same kickoff time, same venue, same price! This game will also be screened live by ESPN, who have approached covering women`s games in a similar manner o that which Setanta used to cover Blue Star Premier games. That is to say, they interview managers in match, as well as other figures from the participating clubs. Ellie White was spoken to during the transmission of the second half, as was Bristol Academy`s President Simon Arnold. Arnold interestingly said Bristol`s aim was to have a first team squad entirely forged from the youth academy in the next 5 years. More next week. ESPN also have a WSL highlights show on Tuesday nights at 7pm, whilst the WSL site has worked hard plugging it’s YouTube channel featuring goal round ups, which can be found here LD.

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