Sunderland Women got off to a flying start in the Women’s Championship, going unbeaten for the first 10 games of the season, cementing their position as early-season title challengers.
However, competition is fierce in this league season with five teams separated at the top by only two points before Sunderland’s match at Eppleton kicked off.
One of those challengers was Birmingham City who had won every league game since drawing with the Wearsiders at the beginning of October, with a goal difference of +11 in that period.
Either one of these teams could have finished the day at the top of the Championship and in the driving seat for a spot in next season’s Women’s Super League. Standing in the way of them was each other.
By half time two points separated fifth and top after Southampton lost to Durham with Charlton 2-0 down and Palace being held by Reading.
But it was Birmingham who held the advantage as the teams went into the dressing rooms after Lily Agg curled a strike past Claudia Moon after 11 minutes to put the Midlanders ahead.
That meant at half-time, Birmingham were table toppers but Sunderland could have gone top themselves with an equaliser.
Sunderland responded well to going behind but lacked a clinical touch in the final third. Mary McAteer found herself swapping between wings to try and unlock the Birmingham defence but clear-cut chances seemed few and far between.
A great opportunity arose from a McAteer clipped ball into the area which was controlled well by Mollie Rouse. The resulting volley flashed past the post to further frustrate Sunderland’s afternoon.
It was soon 2-0 to Birmingham after a searching ball from Cho Yu-Ri was turned into her own net by Black Cats captain Brianna Westrup just after an hour on the clock.
This goal really took the wind out of the sails of Sunderland, and there was a lot of wind swirling around the Eppleton pitch.
As Birmingham employed a high press with a high defensive line, Sunderland struggled to create meaningful progressive passes that weren’t long balls. McAteer felt isolated even when switching wings and the effectiveness of Katie Kitching on the opposite flank waned as Birmingham grew in confidence.
It was perhaps the third that showed the class that will need to be found to get to the Women’s Super League next season as Remi Allen picked up the ball on the edge of the Sunderland area, shifting the ball through the legs of the oncoming defender and into the path of Jade Moore who swept it past Claudia Moan to put the nail in the coffin of Sunderland’s hopes of being top at Christmas.
If Sunderland are to capitalise on the opportunity that the tightness of this year’s Championship table presents then they will need to be bolder in themselves and more sure of their own ability. It was visible in flashes against Birmingham, but unfortunately did not materialise into a goal – the Black Cats have now only scored twice in their last four league games, winning only one.
The result leaves two points separating the top five teams in the Championship with Birmingham top on goal difference and Sunderland one point behind in third place. With only one promotion spot the run in is shaping up to be extremely competitive.
Sunderland host Southampton in the FA Cup after the festive break, while Birmingham travel to Burnley.