SIOBHAN CHAMBERLAIN was the heroine as Liverpool Ladies got their 2016 FA Women’s Super League campaign off to a winning start against Birmingham City Ladies.
The new Reds No.1 saved a penalty in the opening five minutes and produced a commanding performance between the posts, while Shanice Van De Sanden netted the winning goal for the Reds on an eye-catching full debut.
Van De Sanden was one of a trio of changes Scott Rogers made to the starting line up after Saturday’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester City, with Kate Longhurst and Emma Lundh also handed starts in place of Laura Coombs, Caroline Weir and Rosie White.
The defence was unchanged with Chamberlain behind the back four of Martha Harris, Gemma Bonner, Mandy Van Den Berg and Alex Greenwood. Longhurst joined Sophie Ingle and Katie Zelem in midfield while Van De Sanden and Lundh slotted in with Natasha Harding in attack.
The first major incident of the game was the penalty decision, harshly given against Ingle for handball and — without the benefits of replays — on first glance appearing to be just outside of the 18-yard box.
Kirsty Linnett took the spot kick, which Chamberlain impressively dived to her left to punch away, a Blue shirt latched onto the rebound only to fire wide.
Buoyed by the penalty save, Liverpool grew in confidence and only minutes later had the ball in the back of the net.
Longhurst sent a defence-splitting pass to Van De Sanden, the Dutch winger knocking the ball past Birmingham keeper Sophie Baggaley with ease before ensuring it went over the line despite both centre-backs closing in.
Van De Sanden appeared to be everywhere during the opening 45 minutes — the understanding between her and Lundh growing as the half grew on with the striker turning and looking for Van De Sanden every time she received the ball.
On one explosive run down the right wing, Van De Sanden shook off Jess Carter and hit a cross towards goal. Her delivery was sent out for a corner, from which Greenwood’s ball skimmed the head of skipper Bonner and landed at the feet of Van Den Berg, whose effort from six yards out was cleared off the line.
Back at the other end, Birmingham continued to test Chamberlain but to no avail. Linnett was again denied by the Reds keeper, who also stopped Melissa Lawley from getting on the scoresheet after a great run into the box.
On the stroke of half time Liverpool had perhaps their greatest chance of doubling the lead — Chamberlain punching clear a Jo Potter free kick and Van De Sanden quick to counter, beating a number of Blue shirts before passing to Lundh. The Swede made it all the way to the by-line and attempted to cut the ball back but her pass was intercepted.
Liverpool continued to impress in the second half and what is a new side showed promise at each end of the pitch. Linnett and Freda Ayisi forced Bonner into sending the ball out for a corner, which was batted away by Chamberlain and cleared by Zelem.
Quickly to the other end, Harding kept the ball in play, passing back back to Lundh, who played a one-two with Zelem receiving it back with her back to goal and unable to turn and shoot.
The Birmingham defence was quick to close down Lundh whenever she had the ball at her feet, as demonstrated moments later when Greenwood passed to the number nine in a similar position — the left-back attempting to set Lundh through following a clever dummy to deceive her marker.
Harding then created a chance for herself and was only denied her first Liverpool goal by a point-blank save from Baggaley.
The most controversial moment of the match came with 20 minutes still to play, the referee awarding Birmingham a second penalty after deeming Van Den Berg had fouled Lawley. The centre half was also given her marching orders, while Longhurst picked up a booking for protesting.
Ayisi stepped up to take the penalty this time and sent her strike from the spot wide — a small justice for a Liverpool side now down to 10 with Ingle dropping back into defence to play alongside Bonner for the remainder of the game.
What followed was real backs-against-the-wall defending with the Reds determined to hold onto their lead.
Bonner threw herself into a trio of challenges, Harris blocked several goal-bound shots and Chamberlain parried a fizzing hit from outside the area before reacting and holding on well to Ayisi’s strike from inside the box.
An important first three points on the board for Rogers and Liverpool, who next face Chelsea Ladies away from home on Easter Monday.
Liverpool Ladies: Chamberlain, Harris, Bonner, Van Den Berg, Greenwood, Ingle, Zelem (Coombs 80), Longhurst, Harding (White 90), Van De Sanden, Lundh (Weir 74).
Player of the match: Siobhan Chamberlain