Sunderland look for final league push after cup exit

Abby Holmes presses forward for Sunderland
Abby Holmes presses forward for Sunderland
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Never has that old cliche ‘concentrate on the league’ been more appropriate.

Carlton Fairweather even delivered it with a straight face, but this is serious business.

We have three cup finals to play now and we’ll take them one game at a time.

Sunderland’s Continental Tyres Cup interest was officially ended yesterday when Doncaster Rovers won the final Group Two fixture 3-2 at Eppleton CW’s ground.

Were Sunderland – or Doncaster – to qualify as one of the competition’s best third-placed teams, they needed a landslide win.

The Lady Black Cats had chances aplenty against the Belles but, let’s be honest, the cup was never on the horizon ever since they lost to Man City and Liverpool.

But Sunderland can still do the unthinkable and win the Women’s Super League 1 title in their debut season in the current format.

It’s a four-way fight, Chelsea have 23 points, three more than the Cats with Man City (who have a agame in hand on the rest) and Arsenal on 18.

Sunderland have “three cup finals” to come, starting with a trip to Manchester City on Sunday, followed by a home date with Arsenal and the finale, at leaders Chelsea.

While Fairweather would have loved to have gone into the trip to Manchester with a win over Doncaster, you sense he is not unhappy to draw a line under the cup.

“Obviously, we are disappointed we did not go further than we have,” said the head coach. “But, at the same time, we have some very important games coming up.

“That (going out of the Continental Cup) gives us the opportunity to concentrate on those.

“We have three cup finals to play now and we’ll take them one game at a time.”

Concentrate is the key word. One senses yesterday’s defeat to the Belles might actually have done the side a favour and sharpen the minds of the players.

Sunderland must be better at both ends of the field – they squandered an incredible number of chances while, defensively, they were opened up too often and Rovers made them pay.

There had already been a number of home attempts before Abbey Holmes wasted a glorious chance in the 14th minute after Rachel Furness played her in, but the full-back shot straight at Nicola Hobbs.

Doncaster played excellent football and when Sunderland allowed them to get three-on-three in the 28th minute lead, they took the lead. They broke superbly with Courtney Sweetman-Kirk’s cross from the right turned in by Emily Roberts.

Rovers were unlucky not to make it 2-0 in the 34th minute when Beth England finished emphatically after Hilde Olsen had saved from Sweetman-Kirk but an offside flag saved the hosts.

Sunderland had a golden opportunity to equalise eight minutes from the break when Beth Mead set up Steph Roche. The Irish girl put her effort straight at Hobbs and shortly afterwards she looked through but was not strong enough.

But Sunderland levelled within two minutes of the re-start when Mead made a fantastic run and pulled the ball back to Abbey Joice who thumped home from inside the area.

It was the spark for a Sunderland purple patch with Mead leading the way with some dangerous runs.

But it was another delicious through ball by Furness which almost produced a second home goal, but Hobbs saved superbly from sub Keira Ramshaw, with Leandra Little hacking the loose ball clear for her side.

It was to prove a crucial intervention with the Belles going straight up the other end, where Bethany England’s shot from the edge of the area beat Olsen.

The Norwegian made a number of good saves but from one, Sweetman-Kirk put in the rebound to give Doncaster a 3-1 lead with 11 minutes left.

Sunderland had more chances, two for Mead – one well saved the keeper and the other fire wide – and two loud penalty shouts, but their only goal was sub Sarah McFadden’s super header in the sixth minute of stoppage time from Vicki Greenwell’s cross.

Sunderland: Olsen, Holmes, Bannon, Wilson, Greenwell, Joice, Furness (McFadden 82), Kelly (Ramshaw 43), Chaplen, Roche (McDougall 69), Mead. Unused subs: Laws, T Williams, Beer

Goals: Joice 47, McFadden 90

Booked: Holmes 39, Greenwell 40

Doncaster Rovers Belles: Hobbs, Barker, Little, R Roberts, Knight, England, Lawton-Radburn, Simpkins, Lipka (Tierney 90), E Roberts (Stamp 65), Sweetman-Kirk. Subs : Dale, Cresswell, Smith

Goals: E Roberts 28, England 63, Sweetman-Kirk 79

Referee: Robert Anderson. Attendance: 651