MANCHESTER City Women were made to work very hard for an opening day Women’s Super League win against Notts County Ladies at the Etihad Campus.
A 94th minute free-kick from England and City captain Steph Houghton provided the perfect ending to what looked set to be a frustrating game for Nick Cushing’s side.
In truth it was the least City deserved from a game they dominated from the very start amassing 26 shots to the visitors three.
County should have taken the lead when Jess Clarke rolled a penalty wide after she was tripped by Lucy Bronze in the penalty area before City failed to convert from 12 yards when Toni Duggan saw her tame spot kick saved by Megan Walsh in the County goal.
The hosts looked out of ideas as the game ticked towards a stalemate but when Nikita Parris was felled by Sophie Bradley-Auckland, Houghton knew she had one last chance to win the game for her side. And she took it, curling over the wall and through the body of Walsh.
The Notts County keeper will be immensely disappointed not to have kept it out and preserved what would have been a very hard-earned point after a stout defensive performance from the Magpies.
Title-chasing City came out of the traps like a shot, earning four corners in the first five minutes, the first of which saw Jill Scott’s header hacked off the line before Abbie McManus shot landed on the roof of the net, both from Duggan flag-kicks.
The Lady Magpies had a golden chance to score the first league goal of the season in their first foray into City territory. Clarke, a tricky customer on the left-wing, managed to jink inside Bronze who left a dangling leg out which felled the visitors number seven inside the penalty area. Clarke dusted herself down to take the spot-kick but couldn’t work England’s number one Karen Bardsley as the ball ran wide of the left post.
City put together a lovely passing move on 20 minutes, Duggan, Jane Ross and Parris all involved before the ball made its way to Kosovare Asllani who blazed over when she should have worked Walsh in the County goal.
There was a moment of humour mid-way through the first-half when Duggan’s attempted through ball for Ross took a deflection which the Manchester City striker shepherded out for a corner, or so she thought, the deflection was actually courtesy of referee Joseph Johnson and so a goal-kick was awarded to the bemusement of the City attackers.
City were now laying siege to the Lady Magpies goal. Parris cracked a left-footed effort just wide before Scott played a low ball into the penalty area which Ross couldn’t quite turn in as the hosts ramped up the pressure on the visitors.
The hosts were then awarded a penalty of their own on the half-hour when Parris was tripped on the very corner of the box by Dani Buet but Duggan could only side-foot her penalty into the arms of Walsh, the County stopper making her first WSL league start for the Lady Magpies after joining from Everton in the off season.
City thought they’d taken the lead on 35 minutes when a neat move between Bronze and Duggan culminated in Asllani tucking home but the long arm of the linesman cut the celebrations short inside the Academy stadium and the sides went into the break somehow at 0-0.
The second half saw more of City knocking at the Notts County door but the visitors stayed resolute, their back four was protected by two holding midfielders in Angharad James and Leanne Chrichton meaning the hosts were not finding it easy to manufacture clear chances at goal.
Houghton tested Walsh, who was keeping regular England squad member Carly Telford out of Rick Passmoor’s side, with a 25-yard free-kick before Scott volleyed over after a Duggan corner was only half-cleared but City were struggling much more than they were in the first half as they pursued a breakthrough.
Karen Bardsley was essentially a passenger throughout the second half. County didn’t register a shot in the second 45 and never forced the 31-year-old stopper into a save all match long.
On 71 minutes Bronze stole possession from Clarke and mounted a swift-attack that saw Duggan’s shot deflected wide off the hand of Buet but there was to be no third penalty awarded by Johnson who deemed there was no intent to handle from the Lady Magpies right-back.
As the minutes ebbed away it looked like City would have to settle for one point rather than three. Nick Cushing’s side could really have done with the flair of Isobel Christiansen who missed out due to injury and was operating the club’s Twitter account over the course of the 90 minutes.
The decision to stifle Duggan’s attacking threat by playing her in a wider role was also looking like the wrong decision as the fourth officials board rose showing four additional minutes.
Three minutes into stoppage time Duggan fired straight at Walsh in what some inside the stadium must have thought would be the last chance of the game before Parris drew a tired foul out of Bradley-Auckland 30 yards from goal and Houghton sent the 1,195 crowd into raptures just in the nick of time.
For Notts County conceding so late was a cruel blow as, particularly in the second half, they had restricted City to few menacing efforts even though they rarely posed a threat going forward themselves.
Whereas, whilst there can be no denying that Manchester City were by far the better side, their lack of cutting edge will worry them as they aim to go one better than last year’s second place finish in WSL 1. Another cause for concern is the squad depth.
Three of City’s bench were promoted from the youth team for this game and Cushing refused to make a substitution throughout despite it appearing the match was drifting away from them. Nevertheless, if the Citizens do lift the league trophy when the season culminates in the autumn, they will no doubt reflect on Steph Houghton’s last-gasp free-kick on the opening day of the season that turned one point into three.
Manchester City: Bardsley (GK), Bronze, Stokes, Houghton (C), McManus, Corboz, Scott, Asllani, Duggan, Ross, Parris
Subs not used: Hourihan, Tynan, Paul, Kemp, Beattie
Notts County: Walsh (GK), Krantz, Buet, Bradley-Auckland (C), Clarke, Williams, White (Whelen ’83), Yankey, Turner, James, Crirchton
Subs not used: Telford, Luik, Weston, Hassall, O’Neill
Referee: Mr Joseph Johnson
By Jordan Davies at the Etihad Campus