By Nik Brumsack at Meadow Park
Shelley Kerr began her reign as Arsenal Ladies head coach with an accomplished 3-1 victory over ASD Torres in the first leg of their Champions League quarter final at Meadow Park.
In the first meeting between the sides since the 2004/05 quarter-final, Kelly Smith gave the Ladies the lead midway through the first half, converting from close range.
Sandy Maendly pulled back what could prove to be a vital away goal 20 minutes from time to give the visitors hope going into next week’s return leg in Italy.
But in general, this was a competent and professional start to a season that promises much for the Ladies.
In the absence of Katie Chapman and Jayne Ludlow, Smith was handed the captain’s armband. She lined up alongside Little and Nobbs in midfield, with Rachel Yankey and Ellen White supporting lone striker Jennifer Beattie from the flanks.
Ciara Grant and Gilly Flaherty started at centre back, in front of Emma Byrne.
In the days leading up to the game, Kerr had promised to continue the attractive and attacking football that has been the cornerstone of the Ladies’ success over the past decade.
Her players clearly heeded that message. Arsenal began in the ascendancy, with their fluid passing and clever movement causing the visitors problems from the outset.
And they should have had their reward just seven minutes in.
Yankey picked the ball up in midfield before threading an inch-perfect pass through to Little. The midfielder advanced on goal but, under pressure from covering defenders, could only toe-poke an effort tamely into the arms of Gaelle Thalmann.
Just after the quarter hour, the goalkeeper was forced into a better save.
Incisive interplay between White, Little and Smith culminated with the latter freeing Yankey on the left. The winger took aim and unleashed a fierce strike which Thalmann had to beat away at her near post.
The Ladies had been relatively untroubled in the opening stages, with a Byrne clearance that cannoned off tournament top goalscorer Patrizia Panico the only real moment of alarm.
And midway through the first half, Arsenal took the lead.
Little’s free kick was nodded down by Beattie and Smith was first to pounce, instinctively flicking the ball into the bottom corner.
It was a goal that the captain’s performance had merited. She had led by example: tenacious in the tackle, creative on the ball and predatory when an opportunity came her way.
But after starting so well, Smith's game was ended just after the half hour. She landed awkwardly having executed a fine block tackle on Panico and, despite trying to run the injury off, was forced from the fray. Niamh Fahey replaced her.
The withdrawal of Smith took the wind out of Arsenal’s sails. Byrne had to race out to deny Panico, before White’s shot was well kept out at the other end.
It had been a bruising encounter, with a number of players requiring treatment throughout the first half.
With Houghton off the field nursing a kick to the ribs, Torres came close to drawing level in first-half stoppage time when Panico got in behind the defence, only to miscue her shot when in acres of space.
Kerr’s side began the second half with renewed vigour, and after 49 minutes they doubled their lead.
Again Yankey was heavily involved. The winger received the ball midway inside the visitors’ half before crossing early. Her centre picked out Nobbs who, after controlling, rifled home past the stranded Thalmann.
Smith had led by example: tenacious in the tackle, creative on the ball and predatory when an opportunity came her way
The Ladies were dominating. White and Scott both forced corners before Houghton’s curling effort from 20 yards was superbly tipped over by Thalmann.
Just after the hour, it was three. Houghton took a quick free kick from the right back position and launched a raking 50-yard pass into the path of Yankey. The winger advanced towards the penalty area before finding Little, whose fierce left-footed effort flew into the roof of the net.
Torres had been under pressure for much of the season half but they netted what could be a crucial away goal 20 minutes from time.
The ball was shifted from right to left before Silvia Fuselli’s clever dummy created space for Maendly. The midfielder took a touch to steady herself before arrowing a low shot into the far corner.
The wild celebrations from the Torres bench signified just how important a strike that might be in the context of the game.
The remainder of the game was scrappy, lit up only by the direct and skilful movement of Gemma Davison, who caused plenty of problems for the Torres’ backline.
Despite her invention, there would be no more goals, but Arsenal will go into next week’s tie as favourites to progress to the semi-finals for the third successive year.
- Grant Yellow Card
- Nobbs Goal!
- Little Goal!
- Smith (C) 35 Goal!
- Beattie 67
- Fahey 35
- Jade Bailey
- Davison 67
- Gaelle Thalmann
- Daniela Stracchi 88
- Elisabetta Tona (C)
- Silvia Fuselli
- Giorgia Motta
- Sandy Iannella
- Sandy Maendly Goal!
- Raffaella Manieri
- Eleonora Piacezzi 68
- Giulia Domenichetti
- Patrizia Panico
- Arianna Criscione
- Nikki Matarazzo
- Erika Campesi
- Veronica Maglia 88
- Romina Pinna
- Fabiana Costi
- Elisa Bartoli 68 Yellow Card