Sunderland Ladies: Head coach identifies set-pieces as vital to title challenge

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If Sunderland Ladies get their defending right they can stay on course to challenge for the Women’s super League title.

The Lady Black Cats take centre-stage given Sunderland’s men are having the weekend off for the international break.

And Carlton Fairweather’s high-flying women’s team can make it a special weekend if they win at Manchester City tomorrow (kick-off 6pm).

Should second-placed Sunderland collect all three points at the Academy Stadium in Manchester they would stay in close contact with leaders Chelsea – with just two games left – and, more importantly, open a five-point gap over City.

Fairweather acknowledges it is a must-win game if the Cats are to lift the title in their debut season though it could be viewed as a must-not-lose match – WSL1’s runners-up qualify for the Champions League.

City already hold something of an Indian sign over Sunderland this season – beating them 1-0 in WSL1 at the start of the programme and 3-1 in the Continental Cup group fixture.

Fairweather knows how good City are – the Sky Blues are unbeaten in 10 games since the mid-season break for the World Cup – but says if Sunderland get their performance and defending right then they can pull off the victory.

“We’ve played Man City twice and not got anything out of either game,” said the head coach. “We’ve conceded all the goals from set-pieces and that is something we’ve looked at for this game.

“Obviously we’ll be reminding the girls that we must do better from set-plays.

“The WSL game was from a corner, a flick on at the near post, then in the cup, the penalty killed us off at 3-1 and their first two goals were corners.

“We have to make sure we keep a tight ship – if we don’t concede from set-pieces then we will have a chance.”

City are a who’s who of the English game with international star after international star, including ex-Sunderland women Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Demi Stokes and Lucy Bronze.

And even though they have beaten the Cats twice, Fairweather says the sky blues will not take it lightly.

Fairweather said too that opportunities could be rare and when they come along they need to be taken.

“They are too good to be complacent,” said Fairweather. “They are a very disciplined side, who work hard, just as their men’s team does in the Premier League.

“We need to make sure we work hard when they are in possession and when we have the ball we must look after it a bit better than we have in the last couple of matches.

“We need to be a little bit more composed and controlled.

“It will be a tight game, their back four and keeper are all internationals, so it’s going to be dificult and chances will be few and far between.

“If chances come, we need to make sure that we are in a position to finish them.”

But Sunderland are second in the league for a reason. They are a good side who have scored goals for fun – their tally of 23 is the best in WSL1 and nine more than their hosts.

“Belief is very important,” said Fairweather. “The players must believe they have the ability to achieve something and believe in the team.

“A lot of great performances can come from that, we’ve seen that in football.

“They have that ability in abundance, I’ve seen that in the time I’ve been coaching them this year, and they have to keep playing as we know they can.”

Tori Williams has shaken off an ankle problem, with Fairweather, who is set to send out the same XI which drew at Birmingham in their last WSL1 game.

Sunderland (probable): Laws, Holmes, T Williams, Bannon, Greenwell, Joice, McDougall, Furness, Chaplen, Ramshaw, Mead.Subs: Olsen, Wilson, Kelly, McFadden, Roche