Off the back of a win against Arsenal last Sunday that has ignited the FA Women’s Super League title battle, Manchester City faces another tough test to round off the first half of the season when they host Birmingham City, the third encounter between the sides this season already.
Nick Cushing’s side have now decreased the deficit to Arsenal to three points and avoiding defeat on Sunday would see them remain unbeaten going into Christmas, winning five of their last six games since their last league meeting with Marc Skinner’s side, and Man City hasn’t conceded a goal in their last three games, taking nine points from nine on top of that.
Birmingham themselves have also been in good form since throwing away a 2-0 lead when the teams last met, winning four matches but only managing a point from games against Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal.
Caroline Weir and Lucy Staniforth, new signings for both clubs this season, have both been particularly influential on their respective sides so far this season and both are looking forward to going head-to-head on the final weekend before the winter break on Sunday.
“Our last few games have been really positive,” said Staniforth. “We’ve finally started knocking in some goals, which people questioned if we could go with some of our big players missing. People like Emma [Follis] and Charlie [Wellings] have done really well so we feel really good, really confident, and we’re ready to have a good go.”
Weir, meanwhile, is coming into the game off the back of participating in last weekend’s crucial win against Arsenal; defeat would have left Man City trailing this weekend’s opponents and sitting nine points behind the Gunners.
But with momentum fully on their side after Georgia Stanway’s double-sealed a 2-0 win, Weir says confidence is flowing at the City Academy.
“It makes this weekend even bigger,” said the Scotland international. “We’re coming off the back of some good results and we knew we couldn’t lose that game. We knew we could go out there and play well and get the three points.”
After a slow start to the campaign that saw Man City draw at Chelsea and again at home to Bristol City, as well as falling out of the Champions League, the goals have started to flow lately with a 7-1 win against West Ham followed up by a 6-0 win at Brighton.
Birmingham, on the other hand, have only conceded seven goals all season, six of them against Man City and Arsenal, but have only scored 14 goals in their 10 games so far, and Staniforth says it’s the team’s “challenge” to find the net more often.
“We’ve shown we can do it in most fixtures, it’s against the best teams can we really dominate the game? Against Arsenal we played really well and we felt we were in control at times but it was about utilizing our possession and punishing them.”
In the two previous encounters between the sides this season, an opening day Continental Cup match ended 0-0 but the league encounter between the two couldn’t have been more different.
Two goals saw Birmingham take a 2-0 lead in the second half but three goals in quick succession saw Cushing’s side come back to win on the road and build momentum that hasn’t fallen away in the matches since.
“It was a really important game and it showed great character from us to come back from 2-0 down,” said Weir. “It just shows we can get ourselves in some sticky situations but come out the other end.”
Despite defeat, England international Staniforth says Birmingham also used the game as a springboard to go on a good run of form.
“I think that whole game we didn’t particularly play very well but found ourselves 2-0 up,” she says. “Man City actually played pretty well even at 2-0 down and I seem to remember Caz having a great game herself and I think they rose to the occasion and it was a big learning curve for us.
“After the game we sort of looked at ourselves in the mirror and maybe we didn’t bring everything we had that day but we’ve kicked on and we learned a lot from that game.”
Birmingham is often looked upon as punching above their weight compared to the big names of Man City, Arsenal, and Chelsea, but the team has been a constant challenger bar one difficult season since the inception of the FA WSL in 2011.
But still, the team can’t seem to gain the reputation of a serious title challenge and Staniforth says manager Marc Skinner doesn’t use the club’s inferiority in name as an excuse.
“With the resources and the names and the brand the big three have I can understand why some don’t put us up against them but one thing Marc has instilled in us is an atmosphere of not having any fear.
“There are no limitations or expectations on us and it’s a credit to him to have an opportunity in front of him where he doesn’t see finances or resources as key. He just sees a group of players that are working in the way he wants them to work. I understand people might limit us but inside the group we put ourselves against anyone, we’re not scored of anyone.”
But Staniforth is under no illusions that Sunday presents Birmingham with one of their toughest challenges of the season.
A win would leave the Blues in the Champions League spots going into the winter break but defeat would leave them trailing the top two by five points with nine games to go.
“Man City are so prolific and they’re in great form but we’re fully focused,” she said. “It’s about bringing what we’ve done so far and maybe this time it will be a turning point for us and people might start to believe we’re in that top few clubs in the country.”
Birmingham of old under David Parker were best known for their defensive solidity rather than any attacking flair, but Skinner is just about finding a good balance between the two and as a previous outsider, the former Sunderland midfielder says she’s noticing the difference in philosophy.
“The Birmingham of old we’re hardworking, did all the dirty stuff and I know now we work so hard for each other but Marc is so keen for us to work hard on the ball so we don’t lose it. His philosophy is if you control the ball you have a better chance of winning the game.
“You have players like Kerys [Harrop] who have been there since the beginning and she’s always the first to give you a reality check if you need one. Marc has evolved the team, he’s made sure we’re a lot more careful and that we give teams problems. If they’re playing without the ball then when they get it they’ll be tired.”
Both players have embarked on new journeys this season with Staniforth leaving Sunderland for the Blues while Weir was one of many players to leave Liverpool in the summer, joined by Gemma Bonner at Man City for the new season.
“I’ve enjoyed it so far, everyone’s been very welcoming,” said Weir. “I like the way we play. I’m surrounded by good players, which makes it a lot easier but I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Staniforth admits her move has been a “massive change” and says Skinner’s philosophy has led to her almost starting over after leaving Sunderland.
“Marc always refers to the fact he needs to rid us of our English attitude towards football and it’s almost like starting from scratch for me.
“It’s been huge because I’ve never really been in a team that has been dominant in games and a team which really suits what I can bring to the game.”
When all is said and done come the game’s conclusion on Sunday, the most eye-catching prospect is Man City pulling level with Arsenal, who don’t play this weekend, going into the winter break.
After a slow start left Man City trailing their rivals, Weir is happy with the first half of their season and knows the game is also big in the race for a Champions League spot.
“We’ve had a fairly solid first half,” she says. “The start of the season was difficult in moments but we’ve come through them. If we win we go into Christmas in a good position but we know there’s a long way to go.
“It’s great the league is so competitive this year and these games are the games you really have to turn it up. The margins are so much smaller this year and it shows teams can drop points at any point.”
BT Sport brings you the moments that matter with action from the FA Women’s Super League, FA Continental Tyres Cup and SSE Women’s FA Cup. Watch Manchester City Women v Birmingham City Women on BT Sport 1, 12:00 this Sunday 9th December. Watch on TV and via the award winning BT Sport App. bt.com/sport