Leicester and Birmingham braced for crucial WSL relegation clash

Few matches arrive with much jeopardy just nine games into a 22-game season but on the eve of the Women’s Super League winter break, Sunday’s meeting of Leicester City and Birmingham could not feel any more tense.

For both teams, who are separated by the single point Birmingham collected from a 1-1 draw with West Ham in October, with new managers hired last month, taking three points at Filbert Way could swing fortunes and provide the first step away from the WSL’s single relegation place.

The trouble though, for Leicester’s Lydia Bedford, the former England women’s youth team head coach, and Birmingham’s interim head coach, Darren Carter, is to balance the need to win with the bigger picture.

“We have 11 games left this season and what the players can’t do is put all their eggs in one basket this weekend and think about the result,” cautioned Bedford. “The performance is really important. If we get a performance and a result on Sunday it will help us launch that into the second half of the season. If we get a performance and not the result then we know we are progressing.”

Carter believes his Birmingham players are “not naive enough to think otherwise” when asked if this game is as big as it gets. “We both find ourselves in a position where we’re fighting for points and looking for that first league win, so it’s an important game but it’s definitely not going to define the season for either team,” he added.

Being cut adrift from Aston Villa, who sit in 10th place, nine points clear of Birmingham and 10 of Leicester, makes putting breathing room between the teams vital. Birmingham did remarkably well to avoid relegation last term with Carla Ward, now at Villa, working wonders to keep the Blues up against the odds, while Leicester have failed to register a single point in the WSL having been promoted following a dominant Championship season.

With two new managers, there are plenty of unknowns. “I think it adds to the mystery of it to some extent as both managers have had just one or two games to be able to implement what they wanted to do,” said Bedford. “I went down to watch Birmingham against London City Lionesses [in the League Cup] when we finished training. Both managers have had very little time to influence. You have to trust your players to some extent to go out and do what they are expected to do, which is work hard together to try to get a result. It will be an interesting one.”

Bedford formally began her role with Leicester on 6 December, a day after they earned an impressive penalty win over Manchester United in the League Cup, but lost 4-0 to the league leaders, Arsenal, in her first and only game in the Leicester dugout.

Carter, meanwhile, has seen his team score four goals in two games, twice taking the lead against Manchester City before an 89th-minute goal from Ellen White gave the visitors a 3-2 win. They came from two goals down against London City in the League Cup before losing on penalties. Given Birmingham had scored two goals in their previous 11 games, the impact has been immediate.

“The one thing I noticed straight away from watching the previous games before I came in was that the mentality was always to drop and be on the back foot rather than be on the front foot,” he said. “It’s easy to say these things, but to go and put it into practice is asking the players to be brave, and I certainly think they’ve been that since I’ve come in. We’ve asked them to go and press higher up the pitch and ultimately that’s allowed us to transition and get more entries into the final third.

“So I think what you’ve seen the last two games especially is that we’ve rewired that mindset.We don’t want to be a defensive team, we don’t want to just sit in and soak up pressure and hit teams on the counterattack, that’s not my DNA, wasn’t as a player and certainly won’t be as a coach.

“I want us to be on the front foot, I want us to impose ourselves on the game and we’ve got some real talented forward players in the squad and you want to utilise them and get them into the positions where they are going to shine.”

With the return fixture in February, there is hope, particularly given Reading’s defeat of Chelsea and Brighton claiming a point off Arsenal, that both teams can pick up points elsewhere.

“If you look at our Manchester United game [in the cup] a few weeks ago, the players pulled off a bit of a result there already,” said Bedford. “Each weekend there’s a few surprise results which you think you might not have called. I imagine we’ll be in a position if we get our gameplans right … to pick up points against multiple teams and that’s the aspiration.”