Sunderland defender opens up on Manchester United challenge, season so far and club's encouraging form

As Brianna Westrup explains, a glance at the WSL table tells you the scale of the challenge ahead for Sunderland.
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Manchester United sit top, level on points with Chelsea, and are there on merit.

Sunday’s visitors to Wearside are establishing themselves as a force in the English women’s game and will undoubtedly have designs on marking that with an FA Cup triumph. Whether they rotate their starting XI or not, Westrup and team-mates will be facing some of the very best players in the country.

Sunderland, though, can relish that challenge.

Sunderland defender Brianna WestrupSunderland defender Brianna Westrup
Sunderland defender Brianna Westrup
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There are no illusions about how difficult it will be but they have three league wins out of three and will be playing in front of what is expected to be the biggest-ever crowd at Eppleton.

For an ambitious group of players, it’s the ideal way to get a marker of where they stand and what could come next. As Westrup tells The Echo, there is an eagerness to compete and also, where possible, to play.

“Every player wants to see how high and how far they can get, so it's a fantastic test for every one of us to go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country,” Westrup says.

“They've obviously had a fantastic season so far coming off the back of the Euros. I think for all of us, whether it be the younger players or older, it's a test for us to see how we can come together. To see whether we can frustrate them and convert when we get opportunities.

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“We respect the fact that they have some fantastic players but we don't want to be just sitting ducks for 90 minutes trying to defend, we want to see what we can do. We just have to give it our all.”

Confidence that Sunderland can give a good account of themselves is well-earned. It was at times a bruising first half of the season for a team who were rarely outplayed but consistently came out on the wrong side of tight games.

A thumping win over Coventry United before Christmas was backed up by a strong FA Cup win away at Blackburn, before two of the most impressive results this group of players has produced. A thrilling 3-2 derby victory over Durham, and a 3-1 win away at a Birmingham side playing in the WSL only last season - and who had been one of the few teams to truly outclass Sunderland at the Stadium of Light earlier this season.

It has been coming but a corner has been turned.

“We reflected a lot on our start to the season and there were occasions when we were unfortunate not to come away with at least a point,” Westrup says.

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“I think we knew as a team that we had been right in these games and we just needed to convert it into points on the board. It was really pleasing to get that win just before Christmas and then we've been able to take that into the new year, so now it's about keeping up the things we've done well in the last few weeks and fine-tuning the rest. It's been really good for us all to see those results come through.

“It's a really happy place off the back of two important wins, but we're keeping our head down and staying focused because we're under no illusions that this is it for the season by any means.

“Everyone knows how quickly the table can change and the beauty of this league is that everyone knows that any team can beat any other, and that just keeps you honest during your training in the week. We want that winning feeling every Monday.”

Sunderland’s improvement was always likely if they could maintain their level of performance but they have undoubtedly been bolstered by the arrival of Liz Ejupi, too. The striker has made a big impression in two appearances, not just in offering a goal threat but in being a focal point around which Sunderland’s sharp young forwards have thrived.

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“Liz has settled in quite nicely and I think what you've seen is she just gives us a little bit of a different option,” Westrup explains.

“If you look at our squad we have a lot of talent, a lot of young talent with a lot of pace and a really good feel for the game. Liz I think just gives us something a bit different, she has really good vision and she brings a bit of height to our team in the middle of the pitch. She's been a very good signing for us, we're thrilled to see her getting on the scoresheet and making plays for us already.”

Westrup was a title winner with Rangers last season and though born in California, as a former Newcastle player the North East was familiar even before she made the summer move to Sunderland.

The defender has been back in the squad following a recent ankle injury and is relishing the chance to create more memories at Eppleton - hopefully starting on Sunday: “I'm really enjoying it, I feel really supported by the players and the staff and that makes a big difference, you feel the trust to go out and perform to your best.

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“Similarly with the fans the better we can do the more they will get behind us. I know there are some really loyal people in the north east so we know they will stick with us week in, week out, and we want to make it a bit easier and a bit happier for them each week.

“It's been fantastic, I've really enjoyed the season so far.”