A TEARFUL Matt Beard saw his reign as manager of Liverpool Ladies FC end with the Reds bowing out of the Women’s Champions League, losing 1-0 on the night and 2-0 on aggregate to Italians Brescia CF.
Barbara Bonansea’s goal came against the run of play midway through the first-half, and Liverpool must count this as an opportunity missed after a failure to be clinical in front of goal, coupled with a couple of glaring refereeing mistakes, cost the Reds dear.
It was a disappointing night, with Liverpool denied a clear penalty when Katie Zelem’s goal-bound shot was clearly blocked by the arm of Brescia defender Roberta D’Adda.
The Reds also had a goal from Asisat Oshoala — who had earlier missed a golden chance to give the Reds the lead on the night — ruled out, with the watching crowd puzzled as to exactly what the officials had awarded, her header when challenging the goalkeeper looking perfectly legal and no obvious sign of a Liverpool player offside.
Liverpool had been boosted before kick off by the return of a trio of injured players, with Libby Stout back in goal, Martha Harris at right-back and Oshoala starting on the wing.
In Gemma Bonner’s absence, Natasha Dowie captained the side and Katrin Omarsdottir stepped back into central defence to partner Satara Murray. Ingrid Ryland at left-back, Lucy Staniforth in a deep central midfield role with Rosie White, Katie Zelem, and Ashley Hodson completing the line-up.
In a similar pattern to the first leg in Italy, Liverpool came under pressure early on, with Brescia probing down the right with Daniela Sabatino, who was easily dispossessed by Ryland. Sabatino was then the target of a cross in from the same side but this was blocked by Omarsdottir.
In Brescia, Staniforth had played wide but here she moved back into the centre and showed great vision with a couple of passes during the first half. One fell perfectly for Dowie who set up Zelem but she could find no way through the sea of blue shirts of a side seemingly happy to sit on their first-leg lead.
Later in the half, a low pass through the defence reached Oshoala but before the Nigerian could take a second touch the keeper — 17-year old substitute Camelia Ceasar who had replaced the injured Chiara Marchitelli — was quick off her line to collect.
Zelem had been involved at the other end prior to this, helping out in defence and clearing towards Hodson, who impressively accelerated and left Brescia centre back Elena Linari way off the pace but her cross towards the waiting Dowie was intercepted by Sara Gama.
The Reds were on top and were attacking in numbers with Harris and Ryland pressing high and causing problems for the Italians. Harris slipped Oshoala in with a neat through ball but the move was halted by the assistant’s flag for offside.
Murray also headed wide of the post from a Staniforth set piece while Zelem couldn’t quite benefit from Dowie’s excellent hold-up play and lay off while Harris’s strike went over the crossbar after good work by the number nine along with Ryland.
Brescia then took the lead against the run of play, the tricky Sabatino nicking the ball from Harris before playing in Bonanesa whose assured finish from six yards left Stout with no chance and left Liverpool needing three goals to progress.
The Reds were soon ruing their luck when the French referee waved away penalty appeals after D’Adda blocked a Zelem strike with her arm. The defender had clearly moved her arm towards the goal-bound effort and it was a cruel blow for Liverpool before half-time.
Liverpool went straight on the attack in the second half while Brescia were happy to sit back and defend their advantage with the away goal in the bag. Hodson won a corner from kick-off, which led to three successive set pieces — the last of which fell to Oshoala outside the box who volleyed wide.
Hodson then had a shot blocked, while Oshoala could find no way past Gama after a tidy turn from White in the Brescia half. White also sent Dowie chasing a through ball, but with two imposing Italian defenders Dowie clipped her strike inches off target
In the Continental Cup semi-final against Notts County on Sunday, Fara Williams had made her welcome return from injury and she replaced Staniforth in central midfield for the final 25 minutes.
A glimmer of hope briefly flickered as Oshoala looked to have pulled a goal back with a brilliant header, yet the goal was bizarrely disallowed and Dowie was booked for her protests.
Williams went closest before the final whistle, her corner almost going straight in at the near post but in the end held well by the keeper. At the other end, a smart save from Stout low to the ground prevented the night getting worse for Liverpool.
The defeat marks the end of a tough year for Liverpool Ladies, the squad that Beard had hailed as his strongest yet has been massively depleted by injury since the mid-season break with 15 first-team players missing numerous games.
The manager now departs for a new challenge in the USA with Boston Breakers while whoever takes over the helm at the Reds inherits a squad that now boasts a wealth of experienced youth players but will also, as Beard said in an interview with the Liverpool Echo this week, need support from the club to replace the top-class players lost over the last two seasons to compete once more at the top of the table.
LIVERPOOL LADIES: Stout, Harris, Omarsdottir, Murray, Ryland, Staniforth (Williams 71), White (Dale 79), Zelem, Oshoala, Hodson, Dowie.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH: Satara Murray
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo.Com & Getty