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Arsenal 3 (Little 41, E.White 75, Houghton 90)
Doncaster Rovers Belles 0
Arsenal took a step towards winning the inaugural FA WSL title with a 3-0 victory over a stubborn Doncaster Rovers Belles on Sunday.
The Gunners took over 40 minutes to find a way through a disciplined Belles team and it was not until the last fifteen minutes that they made the game safe with two fine goals from substitutes Ellen White and Steph Houghton. In truth Belles offered little threat up front to test a reshaped Arsenal defence accommodating the returning Faye White, but the Gunners were for a long time at the mercy of a surprise equaliser which could have wrecked their plans.
Belles won the first corner and had the first shot on target without troubling Emma Byrne. The home team were slow to threaten, although Shelly Cox made a good clearance from a dangerous Rachel Yankey cross on 13 minutes. Kim Little was once again in outstanding form and shot just wide after a typical run at the heart of the defence. White then rose high to head a Little free kick inches wide.
Aine O'Gorman headed a Precious Hamilton cross wide after the latter had found space on the right for the visitors' best effort on 26 minutes. Doncaster had effectively frustrated the Arsenal front line until confusion between the Belles central defenders from a routine high ball allowed Little the space she needed on the right of the area to crash a rising drive past Mary Earps on 41 minutes.
Buoyed by this, Arsenal dominated after the break, playing at a higher tempo and creating many promising situations. Danielle Carter and Julie Fleeting had shots well saved by Earps who had a fine second half. Jayne Ludlow put a Little cross inches wide with a trademark header from distance and a minute later, Earps was out well to turn away a Yankey effort from ten yards. Ellen White made an immediate impact after coming on, robbing a defender before the young Belles keeper again saved the day.
Gilly Flaherty was very close with a 35-yard effort which just cleared the bar as Arsenal sought the second goal. Occasional Belles counter attacks from O'Gorman, Hamilton and Jess Sigsworth were causing the crowd some anxiety as the match entered the final fifteen minutes with only one goal between the teams.
It took a finish of high quality to relieve the Arsenal nerves. Little and Fleeting set up Ellen White for a 20-yard right foot shot which flew into the top corner on 75 minutes for a 2-0 lead.
Little was inspired in the final minutes, setting up Ellen White for a header over the bar, twice testing Earps from range then turning provider again for Carter. However it was two substitutes who combined for the third, Ellen White placing a cross on the head of Steph Houghton at the far post for a fine finish.
Doncaster's back four had worked very hard with the protection of Katie Holtham and Vicky Exley to make Arsenal's task as hard as they could but were eventually worn down by constant pressure. The Gunners go forward to Thursday's crucial encounter with Everton knowing that their defence is likely to receive a much sterner test than Belles could muster. With Birmingham still to come to the Keepmoat on the last day, however, the Yorkshire team might yet have some influence on the title race.
Arsenal: Emma Byrne, Niamh Fahey, Gilly Flaherty, Jayne Ludlow (sub Steph Houghton 81mins), Ciara Grant, Faye White, Danielle Carter, Kim Little, Julie Fleeting (sub Jennifer Beattie 84mins), Katie Chapman, Rachel Yankey (sub Ellen White 67mins).
Doncaster Rovers Belles: Mary Earps, Maria Karlsson, Shelly Cox (sub Kylla Sjoman 79mins), Rhonda Jones, Victoria Williams, Katie Holtham, Jess Sigsworth (sub Julia Scott 64mins), Vicky Exley, Aine O'Gorman, Naomi Chadwick, Precious Hamilton (sub Millie Bright 79mins).
(Report by Patrick Higgins)
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