WSL relegation battle: Who will slip up at arguably the worst possible time in a women’s team’s history?
With the bottom four teams separated by just four points, the battle to avoid claiming the single Women’s Super League relegation spot is perfectly poised ahead of the final run-in.
Three of West Ham, Aston Villa, Bristol City and Birmingham City will have reason to celebrate on May 9 – the final day of the season – while one team will suffer the agony of going down to the Championship.
Whoever endures relegation will be dropping out of the WSL at arguably the worst possible time in the franchise’s history, missing out on a slice of the top flight’s first ever multi-million pound TV broadcast deal and the potential for regular exposure on BBC One, BBC Two and Sky Sports Main Event.
Each of the four teams in danger will have experienced different challenges throughout a tough campaign, but who is best equipped to escape the drop and who are the key players capable of dragging their side out of trouble?
WSL 2020/21 latest standings (bottom six)
West Ham United
Currently bottom of the table, West Ham are in the gravest danger. Former head coach Matt Beard left by mutual consent in November and there has been no ‘new-manager bounce’ yet under the latest man in charge, Olli Harder.
The New Zealander is yet to oversee a single league victory since his appointment on December 23, drawing two and losing five of his seven WSL games so far.
But with a squad full of international talent and experience, West Ham have the ability to save themselves. Given great exposure after starring in a BBC Three behind-the-scenes documentary, the 2019 Women’s FA Cup finalists have ambitions of challenging for major honours and most commentators predicted they would be closer to mid-table than bottom of the pile this term.
Strangely, despite the team’s predicament, key first-team players were allowed to leave the club in January, including skilful Switzerland winger Alisha Lehmann, who moved to Everton on loan, while Cho So-hyun was loaned to Tottenham. However, they did strengthen with the addition of experienced Iceland international Dagny Brynjarsdottir, whose industrious work in midfield contributed to an improved team display for large parts of last weekend’s defeat at Old Trafford.
Harder’s team have up two games in hand on those around them, but time is running out to prevent those bubbles from bursting.
Remaining fixtures: Reading (a) 3rd April, Aston Villa (h) 20th April, Everton (h) 25th April, Arsenal (a) date TBC, Aston Villa (a) 2nd May, Man City (h) 9th May
Key player: Kenza Dali Formerly of French giants Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, for whom the France midfielder played in the 2015 Women’s Champions League final, Dali’s pace is a key weapon for Harder’s team, who will need her big-game nous for all six of their final games.
Newcomers to the top tier after promotion last season, Aston Villa saw a busy summer of recruitment in an effort to establish themselves in the WSL under the guidance of their women’s sporting director – former England striker Eni Aluko.
But the West Midlands club have struggled for goals, netting the fewest in the league so far with only 11 in 16 games, and have fired blanks in their past four matches.
On January 25, the club took the unusual step of appointing a new ‘interim manager’ without sacking existing head coach Gemma Davies, who had led Villa to promotion. Davies remains on the coaching staff, but ex-Birmingham manager Marcus Bignot has taken over.
Under Bignot, Villa have won one and lost five in the league, but their fixtures since his arrival have been tough, including two against leaders Chelsea. Their schedule looks very different from here on in, including four games in 12 days that will define the entire season.
In many ways Villa are the kingmakers in the run-in, because they still have games to come against all three of the other relegation candidates, including two against West Ham. Those home and away six-pointers against the East London outfit in particular will go a long way to determining who stays up and who goes down.
Remaining fixtures: Everton (a) 4th April, West Ham (a) 20th April, Bristol City (h) 24th April, Birmingham City (a) 28th April, West Ham (h) 2nd May, Arsenal (a) 9th May
Key player: Mana Iwabuchi A World Cup winner with Japan in 2011 and finalist in 2015, Iwabuchi has global pedigree and her silky skills, great balance and deft first touch have wowed WSL supporters of all clubs since her January arrival. Her superb individual effort against Tottenham in February gave the team their most recent win, but more moments of magic may well be needed to help save Villa.
It may be a cliche but this campaign has certainly been a ‘season of two halves’ for League Cup finalists Bristol City, who were winless in a tricky first half of the campaign which included manager Tanya Oxtoby suffering from Covid-19.
From December onwards her side showed improvement, picking up a first away point at Reading and then beating Aston Villa in the cup quarter-finals, and then Beard, formerly of West Ham, arrived to provide maternity cover for Oxtoby for the remainder of the campaign and he has seemingly worked wonders.
Bristol City have picked up nine points from eight games since Beard’s arrival, including three hard-fought away draws and a thrilling 3-2 home victory over Reading that lifted them off the bottom of the table. That has boosted confidence greatly, but their situation remains perilous and they have played more games than all of their nearest rivals.
Beard said after last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Birmingham that he felt the West Country club needed “one more win” to be safe. The most likely source of that win could be their trip to 11th-placed Villa, while if the battle does go down to the final day of the campaign, Beard’s team will fancy their chances against Brighton, over whom they were emphatic 3-0 winners in January.
Remaining fixtures: Arsenal (h) 4th April, Aston Villa (a) 24th April, Man Utd (h) 2nd May, Brighton (s) 9th May
Key player: Ebony Salmon It is difficult to overstate the influence of England striker Salmon on Bristol City, not least because she has scored more than a third of their league goals. Her intelligent running in the channels and quick counters give the team an attacking threat against any opponent and Beard has tipped her to go “right to the very top”.
Before the start of the season Birmingham’s hopes looked extremely slim, with manager Carla Ward having only eight senior players at her disposal when she arrived in August and only minimal resources available for further recruitment. They were many people’s clear favourites to go down.
Nevertheless, in the early parts of the season, Ward’s team excelled and defied all the odds to win three of their opening seven games, as well as reaching an FA Cup semi-final. Come December, remarkably they were in the top half of the table and well on course for safety.
Yet the club’s thin squad has been so stretched at times during this campaign – they frequently could only name two substitutes – that for January’s meeting with Tottenham they were unable to field a side and subsequently a tribunal awarded the victory to Spurs.
However, this month’s late equaliser in a 2-2 draw at West Ham, plus a from-behind draw with Bristol City, have put them closer to securing survival.
As well as having the most points on the board, Birmingham’s run-in looks the most favourable because it includes three home games, with Reading, rivals Aston Villa and Tottenham all set to visit Solihull. However, home is where Birmingham have struggled this season – they are yet to win a home league game this term, picking up just two points from a possible 24 so far.
Remaining fixtures: Chelsea (a) 4th April, Reading (h) 25th April, Aston Villa (h) 28th April, Man City (a) 2nd May, Tottenham (h) 9th May
Key player: Claudia Walker With five of Birmingham’s 13 league goals this season to her name, former Liverpool and Everton striker Walker has led the line for Birmingham and will be key to their survival hopes. Speaking in her latest pre-match press conference on Friday, Ward said she felt her team would need “probably another two” more points to be safe, adding: “If we’d beaten Bristol City we’d have been there or thereabouts. Our goal-difference should give us a point as well. It’s going to be a fascinating run-in. I heard Matt Beard allude that it will probably go down to the final day and I have to agree, I think it will.”
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