The full extent of Leicester City’s progress was illustrated on Wednesday afternoon as they battled past Birmingham City in the Continental Cup.
It has been a season of development for the Foxes and their aspirations of reaching the top tier of women’s football are clear. Having turned fully professional back in August, they spent the summer amassing a squad that has a fine balance of experience and young talent.
Having moved to the top of the FA Championship on Sunday afternoon, they came to Solihull in fine form, defeated only once in the league this season. As a result, manager Jonathan Morgan named the same starting XI that had seen them through their 3-0 win against London Bees at the weekend.
The same luxury was not afforded to Birmingham boss, Carla Ward, who found herself having to shuffle her backline after Sunday’s defeat to Arsenal. Harriet Scott picked up a knock, so Georgia Brougham was moved to right back, with Gemma Lawley coming into partner Rachel Corsie in central defence. Christie Murray, Connie Scofield and Destiney Toussaint were also rested, with Lucy Whipp, Chloe McCarron, and Emma Kelly entering the fray.
It was a quiet start to proceedings as both teams spent the opening ten minutes sussing each other out. The first chance of note fell to the hosts when Brougham’s effort was saved smartly by Kirstie Levell.
You might have thought the FAWSL side would have kicked on from that point but Leicester had other ideas. Their four attacking starlets – Paige Bailey-Gayle, Charlie Devlin, Lachante Paul and Natasha Flint – have a seemingly endless engine of energy and started to exploit the space afforded to them. Devlin was the first to go close, lifting a lob agonisingly wide of Hannah Hampton’s goal before Paul, a particular thorn in Birmingham’s side, twice went close (and perhaps should have done better).
However, it was the hosts who had the clearest opportunity to take the lead. When Remi Allen inexplicably raised both hands in the box to connect with Whipp’s powerful shot, the referee had only one decision to make. Designated penalty taker, Mollie Green, stepped up but Levell went the right way to make a big save. Buoyed by their keeper’s performance, the visitors stepped up a gear as the first half drew to a close, with Hampton denying Paul to send them in level.
The Blues returned energised after the break with the tireless Claudia Walker beginning to see some reward for her efforts. Chances were scarce but she almost sent her side ahead with a sweetly struck hit on the spin that whistled narrowly over the bar.
They were, however, at constant risk of Leicester’s dangerous counter-attack and the long ball over the top. Bailey-Gayle missed the target one-on-one with the keeper, a chance that you would have expected her to take in her current rich vein of form, while Paul and Allen saw chances saved.
Birmingham were riding their luck at times, but it wasn’t totally one sided. Walker came close once more before Corsie’s mazy run started off a dazzling move that ended with her in the box where her first touch frustratingly eluded her.
The game petered towards a draw and a penalty shoot-out ensued that would determine who would progress to the quarterfinals. The first ten spot kicks were flawless with the only surprising event being Hampton stepping up to take Birmingham’s third. As we entered sudden death, it was a case of who faltered first. It came with the 11th kick of the game, when Blues’ substitute Scofield lifted her effort on to the bar. Aimee Everett stepped up to fire home the winning penalty and send her side into the hat in the next round.