Almost half way through the NSW NPLW season and first place on the ladder has changed hands once again. With just two points now separating the top five teams, these close contests reflect the increasing quality of women’s football across the state, and the competition is shaping up to be one of the tightest yet.

Match of the Round: Manly United v Blacktown Spartans

After an uncharacteristically slow start to their season, Manly United were hoping to lift themselves out of the bottom four when they hosted dark-horses Blacktown Spartans at Cromer Park on Sunday afternoon. However, despite an early lead, Manly would capitulate late in the match, conceding two quick goals to hand the visitors a 1-2 win.

If the game could be described with a single word, the word would be messy. It was a frantic first ten minutes with neither team able to settle on the ball or develop any rhythm due to a combination of opposition press and sloppy passes. The first shot—off target by Blacktown’s Ashlie Crofts—wasn’t until the 8th minute, with most of the opening period battled out in the middle third of the field.

While Blacktown settled into the game more quickly than their hosts, it was Manly who would be the first on the scoresheet. After a corner was initially cleared by Blacktown’s defenders, the ball wasn’t able to make it far outside the 18-yard box before Manly’s Ruby Jackson, who’d been stationed just outside the D, launched a perfect first-time volley over the crowd of backtracking players and beyond the reach of Blacktown keeper Casey Dumont. 1-0.

Neither team were able to create many clear-cut chances after the opening goal (not that Manly’s goal was clear-cut anyway!) as both teams continued to struggle to string passes together across the pitch. There was an unusual amount of unforced errors from both sides, particularly from Manly’s defenders, whose long passes forward were either intercepted or misplaced, rolling out of play.

It was no surprise that majority of the first half was played in the middle third of the field given both team’s formations—Manly with a 4-5-1 and Blacktown with a 4-4-2—making it almost inevitable that the ball would be ricocheting back and forth as each team’s crowded middle blocks of players tried to break through each other.

Blacktown’s system appeared to be the most successful approaching the half hour mark, as their two centre-forwards were able to isolate and pressure Manly’s two centre-backs, forcing them into long clearances up-field that were easily gathered by Blacktown’s defenders and recycled.

Of course, if you can’t go through them, you can always go over them, which is exactly what Manly goalkeeper Nicole Simonsen did in the 31st minute, with her giant clearance bouncing over the heads of Blacktown’s defenders for Manly striker Emily Minett to latch onto. However, despite a rare one-on-one chance with Dumont, Minett’s shot was relatively tame and the keeper easily parried it away to safety.

The frustration was beginning to be felt by both teams towards the end of the first half, seen in the two yellow cards—one for each side—being handed out within two minutes of each other. Blacktown’s best chance of the half came in the 41st minute after Crofts picked up the ball down the right-sided central channel and skinned her defender on her outside shoulder, but her shot sailed over the crossbar.

The score remained 1-0 heading into half-time, with both teams clearly annoyed by their lack of patience, structure, and composure in possession.

This would be something Manly in particular would rectify in the second half, passing with more purpose and getting more numbers around the ball moving forward. However, Blacktown would have the first big chance of the half just after the hour mark when yet another poor pass from Manly’s defence was intercepted by Crofts in the left central channel. Crofts, with nobody ahead of her, was able to carry the ball into the box and unleash a shot, but Simonsen was able to parry it wide. The follow-up effort from fellow striker Linda Dudek was blocked by a backtracking defender and eventually cleared.

Manly could have made it two in the 67th minute after Minett made a darting run in behind her defender down the right side and cut in-field to leave her defender in the dust. Instead of shooting, Minett laid the ball off for Manly’s central midfielder, who was all alone at the top of the box, but her shot went over the bar.

Two minutes later, Minett was at it again, finding herself through on goal after a lucky deflection, but Dumont was quick out of her box and made a crucial sliding challenge to block the shot. The subsequent ball fell to the feet of another Manly player who had a go from 40 yards but it was headed out for a corner before reaching the goal. The resulting corner was also dangerous, with Patty Charalambous’ deep ball finding a team-mate at the back of the six-yard box; her header was rifled towards the roof of the net but Dumont made a fingertip save to tip it over the crossbar.

But Manly wasn’t done yet. Nor was Dumont. After winning the ball back in midfield, Minett headed the aerial pass on for her winger, who was given space to take it to the by-line and send a chipped cross to the far post where Charalambous was waiting in acres of space. Dumont flew off her line to smother the first shot, and stuck out a strong left hand to block the second; the third shot, which went through the keeper’s legs, was dramatically cleared off the line by Blacktown’s central defender.

It was a crucial moment in the match for the visitors, who would soon turn their fortune around. In the 70th minute, following a foul on Kristy Rohrer just outside the area, Alix Roberts stepped up and sent a bullet free kick over Manly’s wall and past the wrong-footed Simonsen. 1-1.

Less than three minutes later, Blacktown were in the lead. Crofts, who had been busy and dangerous all game, picked up the ball near half-way after a clever dummy away from her defender and sprinted almost the entire half of the field down the left side. The two covering Manly defenders simply couldn’t keep up with Crofts as she tore past them and into the box, firing past Simonsen to make it 1-2.

This is how the game would end after Blacktown spent the final five minutes keeping the ball near the corner flag. A frustrating result for Manly, who have dropped to third-last, while Blacktown have worked their way up to fifth and within a point of the top four.

Manly United 1 (Ruby Jackson 10′)
Blacktown Spartans 2 (Alix Roberts 77′, Ashlie Crofts 80′)

Teams:

Manly United: Emily Bastow, Patty Charalambous, Claudia Cholakian, Sunny Franco, Ally Green, Ruby Jackson, Ellie Kerr, Emily Minett, Chloe O’Brien, Bryany Parker, Hannah Peric, Nicole Simonsen, Nicole Stuart, Jane Vanzino, Isabella Whitton.

Blacktown Spartans: Keisha Allen, Tanya Borazio, Hannah Bourke, Ashlie Crofts, Annabelle Daczko, Linda Dudek, Casey Dumont, Tiarne Flavin, Bethany Gordon, Olivia Price, Alix Roberts, Kristy Rohrer, Anna Vassallo, Natalie Vukovic.

Around the Grounds

Sydney Olympic 0 – 2 Northern Tigers

Football NSW Institute 0 – 3 Illawarra Stingrays

North Shore Mariners 1 – 3 Bankstown City FC

Macarthur Rams 2 – 1 Emerging Jets

Sydney University 1 – 0 NWS Koalas

Ladder

Pos Team P W D L For Against GD Pts
1 Sydney University 10 6 3 1 27 8 19 21
2 Sydney Olympic 10 6 2 2 29 14 15 20
3 Northern Tigers 10 6 2 2 17 6 11 20
4 Illawarra Stingrays 10 6 2 2 22 13 9 20
5 Blacktown Spartans 10 6 1 3 21 16 5 19
6 Macarthur Rams 10 5 2 3 22 21 1 17
7 NWS Koalas 10 4 4 2 21 12 9 16
8 Football NSW Institute 10 4 0 6 16 19 -3 12
9 Bankstown City 10 3 1 6 19 27 -8 10
10 Manly United 10 2 1 7 15 22 -7 7
11 Emerging Jets 10 2 0 8 14 34 -20 6
12 North Shore Mariners 10 1 0 9 12 43 -31 3
SAMANTHA LEWIS
Samantha is a writer and Social Media Manager for Beyond 90. Sam has previously written for the The Women’s Game where covered the 2017/18 W-League seasons of both Sydney FC and Western Sydney. She continues covering the Matildas both domestically and internationally, particularly in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and is the lead writer for B90s coverage of the 2019 NSW NPLW.