Before their Women’s FA Cup semi-final, Arsenal manager Joe Montemurro had said that the team that found its rhythm “as quickly as possible” and was “able to control and dictate” would be most likely to progress.
Unfortunately for the 51-year-old, it was City, with US World Cup winner Sam Mewis at the hustling centre of a press that would earn her new team a Wembley final against Everton on 1 November. Midfielder Mewis’s winner, her first goal in England, came just minutes after Jordan Nobbs had levelled following defender Steph Houghton’s free-kick opener for City.
Arsenal’s attack had been the most potent since football resumed, with a staggering 19 goals scored in their opening three fixtures. City’s start had been less eye-catching, with a 0-0 draw at home to Brighton and a tight 2-1 defeat of Championship side Leicester in their FA Cup quarter-final having followed their 2-0 league opener against promoted Aston Villa.
However, although the home side had not quite found their flow in attack, at the back they had proved solid before welcoming Arsenal to a cool but clear Academy stadium.
It would be that defence, and in particular the centre-back pairing of Gemma Bonner and Houghton, that would stifle the free-scoring Gunners and draw first blood.
Bonner muscled aside every attack from Arsenal’s tricky forward line with intent in front of a watching England manager Phil Neville, hoping to add to her modest tally of 11 England caps.
It was Houghton, the Lionesses’ captain, who would then prove her worth at the other end. After Scotland winger Caroline Weir was tripped outside the area, Houghton stepped up to deliver a perfect looping free-kick in at the near post.
Games between these two sides always have goals and in recent times the spoils have been shared. City earned three points through a 2-1 win when Arsenal visited the Academy stadium last February, while Arsenal were winners in their two preceding fixtures, first earning a 1-0 victory in the league before knocking the Citizens out of the League Cup.
Perhaps frustrated with their lack of control in this game, a long-range dipping effort from Arsenal midfielder Nobbs felt laced with a ferocity as it bamboozled England keeper Ellie Roebuck and powered into the net.
Unfazed, Gareth Taylor’s team built again, displaying the kind of patience Montemurro had been hoping to instil in his Gunners. It quickly paid off. When Chloe Kelly’s cross towards Ellen White saw the latter slide to the ground under pressure, the Arsenal defence switched off and allowed the floored striker to poke cleanly into the run of Mewis who slid in.
There was a symmetry to the way City played. Kelly looked to be being coached and instructed on the right wing by returnee Lucy Bronze behind her, Mewis provided strength and energy in the middle that would free space for almost psychic Keira Walsh to splay passes from deep.
Having finished third in the last, curtailed Women’s Super League season, Arsenal can take a little solace from the fact that they remain unscathed in all the new campaign’s competitions, albeit with a bruising that had goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger yelling: “What the hell are you doing?” at her teammates with 15 minutes to play.
City though, have laid down a marker, have the chance to earn Taylor his first silverware and can build on a performance in which they finally found their flow. That World Cup final goalscorer, Rose Lavelle, would come on to make her debut with City already pulling the strings also hinted of how much more there is to come.