THREE magnificent strikes ensured Liverpool Ladies returned to winning ways in Doncaster, effectively relegating the winless Belles as the Reds travelled back to Merseyside with a 3-1 victory.
Doncaster took an early lead when Rhiannon Roberts nodded a set-piece into the back of the net. However two audacious efforts from Caroline Weir put Liverpool ahead at the break, and Tash Harding sealed the win with a sublime goal of her own in the second half.
After suffering a knock during the warm-up at Birmingham, Mandy van den Berg returned to the backline alongside Satara Murray, Gemma Bonner and Sophie Ingle — with Siobhan Chamberlain in goal.
Ashley Hodson led the line with Shanice van de Sanden and Natasha Harding either side of her; Laura Coombs, Katie Zelem and Caroline Weir completed the lineup in midfield.
Liverpool struggled during the opening stages to get a grasp on the game, despite Harding creating the first chance of the tie flying down the left wing to cross towards Hodson but stand-in Belles goalkeeper Anna Moorhouse collected.
The Reds conceded a set-piece with Zelem well-positioned on the edge of the box to bat the first away before Rebecca Rayner sent a great opportunity wide of the mark, having slipped through the defence to chase a loose ball.
Rayner looked lively for the home side and sent another effort over the crossbar shortly after, after being teed up by former Liverpool Ladies midfielder Katrin Omarsdottir.
Just 11 minutes in Liverpool were forced into a substitution, Coombs unable to continue after a collision with Emily Simpkins and replaced by Kate Longhurst.
Liverpool were having some luck down the left through van den Berg, as they pressed high up the pitch and got the ball into the box on several occasions, one of which was cleared only as far as Zelem who struck wide from distance.
Doncaster took the lead when a harsh free-kick was given against van den Berg out wide, the resulting ball swung in towards Roberts who headed past Chamberlain.
Simpkins then went for goal herself from another free-kick, a move straight from the training ground with Omarsdottir and Carla Humphrey appearing to argue about who was to take it before Simpkins sent a shot wide.
Spurred on by the Doncaster goal, Liverpool began to settle into a rhythm and soon found themselves on top; van den Berg hit another excellent ball that almost fell to a red shirt but Moorhouse was aware of the danger and came off her line to collect.
A tight offside decision was given against the Reds when Harding went through one-on-one with Moorhouse, after Zelem had slipped the winger through.
This preceded a period of domination by Liverpool, the home side panicking as the ball bounced around the box with each of van de Sanden, Harding, Hodson and Weir denied by the plucky Belles defence.
Liverpool displayed patient build-up play despite trailing, each failed attack seemed to end back up with Bonner and played forward once again to one of Longhurst and Zelem who continued to link up well.
Zelem has an eye for a pass and sprayed one wide for van de Sanden to chase, the winger managed to get behind the left-back and flash the ball into the box but Doncaster were able to clear.
The Reds patience was eventually rewarded with a superb brace from Weir. Her first coming after Zelem clipped the ball around Omarsdottir to find the Scottish international in space, Leandra Little arrived a second too late to close her down and Weir scooped the ball under Moorhouse to put Liverpool level.
Then, on the brink of half-time, the Reds were in the lead — Ingle provided Weir with the ball as she turned to fire an even more impressive and unstoppable left-footed strike past the ‘keeper.
Liverpool went in at half-time with a deserved lead and they came quick out the blocks in the second half with van de Sanden racing down the right and cutting the ball back to Zelem, who’s strike from 20 yards was straight at Moorhouse.
Then Longhurst went on a bursting run all the way into the Belles box where she went down calling for a foul, her protests were waved away by the referee.
It was all Liverpool as Doncaster struggled to get a foothold, unable to cope with the Reds’ passing. A prime example of this came as Hodson had a shot blocked, with the ball immediately won back by Zelem who tapped it to Weir, she turned to find Longhurst who passed back to van den Berg — continued patient build-up.
Liverpool’s best chance to put distance between themselves and the Belles came just four minutes into the second half, van den Berg crossed to her Dutch international team mate van de Sanden who’s shot was blocked and Hodson then struck the post from the rebound.
Van de Sanden’s second half performance was excellent and the winger was unlucky not to be on the scoresheet herself after Harding cheekily nutmegged her marker to tee up van de Sanden, but she was denied by Moorhouse.
The Reds soon found the back of the net for the third and final time as Harding found herself unmarked outside the area, with Doncaster slow to react, and she lifted the ball over the line to put Liverpool 3-1 up.
Despite the slow start Liverpool played some of the best football they’ve played this season towards the end of the first half and during the majority of the second, a well-earned three points going into the season’s final game — and what could be a fight for third — against Arsenal Ladies on November 6th.
LIVERPOOL LADIES: Chamberlain, Murray, Bonner (C), Ingle, van den Berg, Coombs (Longhurst), Zelem, Weir, van de Sanden, Harding, Hodson.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH: Caroline Weir.