United Women 3 Everton 1
Everton’s players exhaled and turned away en masse. Despite a dogged and spirited first-half showing at Leigh Sports Village, with much to recommend it, they were 3-1 down to Manchester United Women and all but defeated, largely due to the mastery of 18-year-old Lauren James.
The reason for their moment of anguish was James’s second goal of the game, just before the interval. Latching on to a loose ball just outside the Toffees’ box, the youngster sent a rasping drive searing across Tinja-Riikka Korpela in the Everton goal that arrowed perfectly into the keeper’s bottom left-hand corner.
It was the final strike of the afternoon, capping a marvellous, spritely comeback for Casey Stoney’s side, who had gone behind in just the second minute when Inessa Kaagman’s inswinging corner found the United net via a combination of Simone Magill’s head and Mary Earps’s grasping hands.
But two quick goals – from James and captain Katie Zelem – rapidly turned the match back in United’s favour, to the delight of another sizeable crowd at Leigh Sports Village.
When James’s classic made it three on the stroke of half-time, the match was beyond reach for the Merseysiders, despite their admirable work-rate and attacking intent whenever they took hold of the ball.
But the destiny of the match was determined, more than anything, by the breadth of James’s talent and the intelligence with which she put it to use during a delightful performance.
Stoney would have been alarmed at the defensive disorganisation in the Reds’ backline during the opening stages, as Everton flooded forward, pressed hard, and took the lead through Magill.
But when United responded, James made sure there was no mercy.
First, Jackie Groenen’s graft in an advanced midfield role won the ball back for the home side, midway inside the Everton half, and her measured pass found Sigsworth on the right flank. Spotting James darting ahead of her marker towards the near post, Sigsworth found her with a low centre, and the budding English forward easily swept the ball home.
Minutes later, it was two, when Katie Zelem converted from the spot, almost dismissively rolling the ball to Korpela’s right. But it was James’s quick feet inside the Everton area that had won the opportunity; her nimble work far too quick and adroit for midfielder Katie Finnigan, who was deputising in the Blues’ defence due to injuries.
After this blistering opening, United eventually seized control of the tempo and flow of the match, thanks to the secure midfield triumvirate of Ladd, Zelem and Groenen.
Everton still threatened on rare forays forward, often via the menacing Chloe Kelly on the right, whose slipperiness troubled the Reds all day. But it was James who kept them at bay; if not via her direct threats on goal, then through her unpredictability and flawless control of the ball. The best move of the half started when she nutmegged her opponent, and Groenen’s sprawling ball sent Galton clear. Sadly, the winger slipped while trying to apply the finish.
James’s lovely mix of strength – through exemplary chest control, or shielding the ball – and lightness – via an array of deft, inventive flicks and feints – kept the Toffees always out of range, like the long reach of an indomitable boxer. When nothing creative was on offer, she was not shy to fire the ball back 60 yards to Earps in goal, allowing her team to redraw their breath and reset. For an 18-year-old, it was a remarkably rounded contribution.
The aforementioned third enabled United to relax at the break, and no further goals followed. Maybe that was fitting; James's eye-catching virtuosity deserved to be preserved as the game's leading narrative component.
Everton remained committed to the task in the second period, and almost grabbed one back – which could have made the finale interesting – when an Earps clearance fell straight to Kaagman. The Dutch player’s chip looked to be sailing home until Millie Turner stooped to the rescue and headed the ball away, and back into the arms of the stranded Earps.
There were changes from both sides – one enforced for Everton, whose captain Lucy Graham appeared to be struggling with a knee problem following a challenge – and plenty of endeavour from the visitors, but it was United who came closest to adding further weight to their goalscoring tally.
Substitute Kirsty Hanson had a shot blocked after James had started yet another promising move, and Zelem – who wound the game down expertly for much of the second half with her orchestration of United’s possessional play – tested Korpela with a stinging shot from 20 yards or so.
But 3-1 it finished, as United leapfrogged Everton into fourth place, and returned to winning ways following the disappointment of last weekend’s 3-2 defeat at West Ham.
James was behind every goal, and few who attended the game will have left Leigh Sports Vilage with anything other than the impression that they were in the presence of a singular and special player.
Stoney will doubtless be pleased with the intensity and aggression of the entire team – embodied by Harris and Groenen in particular – but where it mattered, in and around the penalty area, James proved the difference.
United: Earps; A. Turner, A. McManus, M. Turner, M. Harris (Smith 89); Ladd (Toone 73), Zelem (c); Sigsworth (Hanson 64), Groenen, Galton; James.
Subs not used: Mikalsen, Okvist, Arnot, Ross.
Goals: James 4, 45, Zelem 11
Everton: Korpela; Morgan, Finnigan, George, Turner; Kelly, Clemaron, Graham (c) (Stringer 74), Kaagman (Boye-Hlorkah 63); Magill, Pike (Cain 63).
Subs not used: Levell, Hinds, Brougham, Hughes.
Booked: Clemaron.Goal: Magill 2