The 6-0 scoreline and the sheer ruthlessness of Manchester City’s defeat of Brighton has kicked the troubled club’s 2022 off in style, but it is the return to action of Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton that will matter more. They were forced to sit out the majority of the first half of the season but the return of the England duo is a sign that the end of a catastrophic injury crisis, during which Gareth Taylor’s job as manager has appeared to be in danger, is in sight.
“We’re making steady progress now,” Taylor said. “We need to back this performance up with another one. One game at a time.”
City have five wins in their opening 10 games but, crucially, four wins from their past five and are building some momentum. Brighton played their part in the emphatic City win, though, and were very much the architects of their own downfall after a solid first half was undone in the space of seven second-half minutes.
Despite Brighton’s dismal record against Manchester City – they have lost four and drawn one against the visiting team – it says a lot about the development of the south-coast side that the opening Women’s Super League game of 2022 was the pick of the matches on offer. Under the former England manager Hope Powell, Brighton’s steady rise up the WSL table has, to some extent, flown under the radar. In fifth and two points above City – last year’s runners-up – before this match, Brighton are becoming harder to ignore.
The winter break “came at a really good time for us, for players and staff”, Powell said before kick-off. They endured back-to-back defeats before Christmas and their slide was halted by the break. Rejuvenated and strengthened by the arrival from BK Häcken of the Swedish duo Emma Kullberg and Julia Zigiotti Olme, who were both on the bench, the home side coped well in the first half despite City dominating possession.
They also were not without chances, with Danielle Carter, who joined in the summer from Arsenal, firing just over the crossbar and a volley from Inessa Kaagman both hinting at the threat. Powell had said she wanted her team to play on the front foot and, using a higher line, in the second half they went on the hunt. That change, though, left them exposed, and City were ready to take advantage thanks to the blistering pace of Bronze and the wide forwards Lauren Hemp and Hayley Raso.
Three minutes after the restart Hemp raced into the box from the left and sent a low cross into the middle that the defender Victoria Williams turned into her own net with Ellen White lurking nearby. Two minutes later City doubled their lead, a ball over the top from Alex Greenwood finding the run of Hemp, who chipped the ball neatly over the goalkeeper Megan Walsh.
In another two minutes it was three. Bronze’s pulled-back ball ricocheted around the area, Brighton failed to clear, and Stanway passed it into the net. The fourth goal was perhaps the most bruising: Walsh’s rolled ball was nicked off the feet of the intended recipient, Danielle Bowman, by Coombs, who powered it into a top corner from the edge of the penalty area.
Buoyed by the goals and the return of Bronze and the club captain, Houghton, the latter entering the fray with the game all but over, City ruthlessly toyed with Brighton and looked every inch the team that vied for the title with Chelsea last season.
The fifth came when another ball over the top put Raso in and she powered it home, and the substitute Vicky Losada added the sixth with a chipped effort that flicked off a defender and in. City go above Brighton and into fifth with the win. They are four points off third, and suddenly Champions League football does not look impossible.