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Sheffield win battle of Champions
 Women's Football News 26 Aug 2014
Sheffield win battle of Champions - 26 Aug 2014 - Women's Football NewsSheffield FC's home match with Coventry City was the standout fixture on the opening day of the new look expanded FA Women's Premier League. 
Sheffield finished runaway Northern Division champions last season, clinching the title with five games to spare, while Coventry only secured the Southern Division crown in their final game, a sequence of four successive wins without conceding enabling them to pip Gillingham.
A play-off between the two champions was hinted at last term, but there was no time to organise one. To add further intrigue to this season's Northern Division opening encounter (Coventry have switched divisions) was the fact that Sheffield were unbeaten at home in the league last season (just five goals conceded), a feat they also achieved in 2012-13, while City did not lose an away league match, conceding just six times, three of which came in a draw at Keynsham.
While this was billed as an unofficial champion of champions clash to begin the 2014-15 campaign, this season will end with a play-off between the Northern and Southern Division champions which will give the winners a chance to go forward and win promotion to the FA Women's Super League in 2016, subject to fulfilling the off-field criteria required for WSL 2.
Sheffield's starting line up featured debuts for new signings Billie Murphy and Abbie McIver, while both Danielle Cox and Kimberley Turner added to the new faces in action when they came on at the interval. Coventry's line up included debuts for Samantha Quayle, Katie Lowder and Eleanor Towers, while Callan Barber, Jade Formaston and substitute Natalie Wilcox were all appearing for the first time since the 2013 part of last season.
Sheffield had the game's first attempt on goal with last season's top scorer Jodie Michalska getting in a shot inside the first minute, while home keeper Claire Wallhead had to claim a centre and smother the ball to prevent gifting a chance to Coventry's Katie Lowder shortly after.
A run from deep in the Coventry half was finished by a low strike from just outside the penalty arc by Michalska, but it was straight at Coventry keeper Susan Wood who had no difficulty effecting a routine save. However, Wood was beaten just a minute later as Suzanne Davies got into the area and from a few yards just off the left angle of the six yard box she drove in a low shot which got the better of Wood's dive to go in off the far post.
Wood prevented Sheffield doubling their advantage a few minutes later when she clutched the ball as Michalska got in a shot from a similar position to that from which Davies had scored.
Sheffield had the vital advantage of the game's first goal and Wallhead helped preserve the slender lead when she came out to smother and deny Callan Barber on 17 minutes. Coventry enjoyed some strong spells in the second part of the first half and their closest to an equaliser before the interval came on 40 minutes when Wallhead got down to hold Jade Formaston's header to meet Helen Dermody's corner.
The second half continued much as the first had ended with Coventry pressing, but not quite able to stretch Wallhead until just past the hour when Karen Clough got the better of Danielle Cox to fire in a shot which the Sheffield keeper held diving to her right.
Natasha Cooke got in a fine tackle to deny Samantha Quayle a shot at the expense of a corner, taken by Dermody and met by Destiney Toussaint whose downward header bounced up and was headed away at the post by Lynn Goodman. A few minutes later Clough turned Ellie Gilliatt, but Wallhead had anticipated well and came out to block Clough's 15-yard strike.
That was on 69 minutes as Coventry had been by far the more forceful since the interval and if a goal was going to come, it would surely be to level matters. But no, Wallhead claimed a cross on 71 minutes and turning defence into attack Sheffield advanced the ball down the right wing to Michalska. Knocking an up and under across the area, she ran on to meet her own pass to keep possession, take the ball ten yards further inside to a position almost dead centre of goal and then hammer home a left footed strike which flew inside Wood's left post.
If it had been a televised game, there would have been several replays as the goal was enthused over. It all but decided matters as Coventry rarely threatened subsequently and Sheffield, lifted, enjoyed more play in the attacking half than had been the case in the first part of the second half.
Two quality goals separated the sides at the finish as Sheffield were the only Northern Division team to keep a clean sheet on the opening day. 
Sheffield FC: Claire Wallhead, Natasha Cooke, Billie Murphy, Ellie Gilliatt, Lisa Giampalma, Carla Ward (sub Danielle Cox 45mins), Kerry Parkin (sub Kimberley Turner 45mins), Lynn Goodman, Suzanne Davies, Abbie McIver, Jodie Michalska. Subs not used: Jess Horsley, Kirsty Richardson, Nicole Kemp.

Coventry City: Susan Wood, Jade Formaston (sub Libby Piggott 74mins), Samantha Quayle, Callan Barber, Natasha Lynch, Destiney Toussaint, Eleanor Towers (sub Natalie Wilcox 35mins), Helen Dermody, Katie Lowder, Marie Gauntlett (sub Jade Mellor 54mins), Karen Clough.

(Report and photos by Julian Barker)

(top) Sue Wood claims a cross, watched by Suzanne Davies and Jade Formaston
(middle) Ellie Gilliatt gets in a shot for Sheffield
(bottom) Jodie Michalska on her way towards scoring Sheffield's second goal

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