By Chris Marshall (@mershdoes)
Even with the game out of sight the word shape remained prevalent on Rangers Head Coach Malky Thomson’s lips. It has been a familiar cry to those who had already seen the Light Blues in action this season, a foundation on which Rangers have built what can now be seen as a serious threat to Glasgow City’s SWPL1 dominance following a comprehensive 5-0 victory at Broadwood.
In the opening rounds of fixtures Rangers had been functional and well-drilled, possessing enough quality to rack up victories to stay in touch at the top with an injury-time defeat to eternal rivals Celtic the only red mark on the form guide. During these opening exchanges shape had been the subject of constant touchline cajoling from Thomson, a trust in process that now sees functionality complimented with heightened flair and fluidity, encouraged by the final arrival of Sam Kerr, Kirsty Howat and Rachel McLauchlan this month. An early season pragmatism which has provided the bedrock for two scintillating pre-break performances from a side that finished 26 points behind last year’s champions and has never won an SWPL title.
Sunday 13th December may have been the day that had many sit up and take notice but the 9-0 demolition of Motherwell at The Rangers Training Centre a week earlier would prove to be prophetic for what was about to come against the thirteen-in-a-row champions. The Women of Steel – still for my money the best nickname in football – melted against a Rangers attack forged with a vibrancy that had been missing in their previous outings as the new arrivals opened up undiscovered avenues of attack not just for them, but for their previously stifled team mates.
At full back McLauchlan now provides on the right what her international team mate Nicola Docherty does on the left, a fast-moving distribution point for goalkeeper and centre backs alike. The arrival of Kerr, a dynamic midfield runner whose ability to drive with the ball made her such a potent weapon during Glasgow City’s successful UWCL run last term, has allowed Kirsten Reilly to retreat to a more comfortable role just in front of the defence where she can look to dictate play. The hat-trick scoring debut of out-and-out striker Kirsty Howat also helped to accentuate the best of Zoe Ness’ abilities, the former Lewes striker dropping deep to use her strength to hold up play and bring in others.
However to put Rangers last two performances solely on the backs of the former City trio is to underestimate the work done on a squad now realistically looking to overturn a deficit that for years seemed impossible. Of the side that had lost 4-1 to Glasgow City in a 2019 Scottish Cup Quarter Final last October (the last time the two sides met) only Emma Brownlie, Daina Bourma and club captain Clare Gemmell featured, with all three starting on the bench fourteen months later as Rangers moved top of SWPL1 on goal difference.
In goal the arrivals of Jenna Fife and Megan Cunningham has added strength and depth to an area of the park where some SWPL sides continue to struggle. Brianna Westrup, a somewhat unheralded signing from Newcastle United has probably been the best centre back in the division, and whilst the loss of Demi Vance is a huge blow for a side who have set out their stall to progress from the back Carly Girasoli has taken her opportunity to deputise firmly with both hands. Reilly and Chelsea Cornet have added depth to midfield and the signing of Indian international Bala Devi continues to make headlines in her homeland.
A special mention should be held in reserve though for Rangers two most devastating attacking threats in Lizzie Arnot and Megan Bell. Against Motherwell the duo were irrepressible. Arnot, who had been burdened with the weight of creative responsibility for most of the early running this season was set free thanks to the spaces created by her new team-mates, scoring a hat-trick which featured a well finished, if bamboozling, free-kick routine. Bell, who had returned from an eight month lay-off complicated by global pandemics and niggles during recovery will be a future star of the women’s game far beyond theses shores, she was electrifying against Motherwell and she would continue that run of form against City, the Northern Ireland international showing composure to cut inside and cooly place the ball past Lee Alexander to put Rangers one up in what had been a keenly contested opening period.
City had retained the majority of the possession by that point with Sharon Wojcik in particular showing quality and composure but a final product never seemed to come and Rangers soon found themselves two goals up as a Ness step over left Howat in space to finish, a celebration understandably muted given the role City has played in the development of what is proving to be a prolific career. Howat would return the favour just before the interval playing through Ness, the former Lewes forward dinking the ball over an onrushing Alexander having been found in an alarming amount of open space by a well placed pass from SWPL1’s joint top goalscorer.
City were rocked as agitations started to show heading into the interval but the post-break resurgence never came and the game was put firmly to bed just a few minutes after the interval with Arnot getting on the end of a Brogan Hay cross to round off a move that was well-worked but lacking in pressure from the City rearguard. The word shape returned to the vernacular of the Rangers head coach as his side focused on the finish line before they were gifted a fifth after a fumbled attempt at clearing a corner from Alexander, Hayley Lauder and Jo Love saw the ball eventually bounce over the line via another former City player, Carly Girasoli.
It was a humbling night for City who go into a tricky UWCL second leg against Sparta Prague with a side looking to have lost a little of its spark as they try to overturn a 2-1 deficit. Reinforcements are on their way. Cailin Michie, who was restricted to a co-commentary role in Cumbernauld, will add strength to a defence that lined up with two players who’s best attributes lie further up the park and it will be a boost at both ends that Scott Booth will be looking for before the season returns next year.
Despite defeat, the champions remain level on points with the new league leaders with Celtic two points further back and it would be beyond foolish to write off City, or Celtic, and anoint Rangers as champions in waiting with a full two-thirds of the campaign left to run. Malky Thomson’s side though look to have set a new standard, whether they can maintain it or they too will be overcome remains to be seen. One thing is certain, the 2020/21 SWPL1 season is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable we have ever seen.
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