Investec Women’s Premier League Week 17 Preview.

Canterbury, Reading and Surbiton are now all certain of their places in the end of season championship playoffs but who will join them in the much coveted fourth spot is still firmly in the balance. With matters at the bottom of the table more or less sewn up, the race for fourth as well as the scrap for top spot and a place in Europe next season are the two burning issues still to be resolved in the Investec Women’s Premier League.

Canterbury currently sit top of the league but their four point advantage was slashed to just one as they suffered a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Surbiton this past weekend. Jen Wilson’s side threw everything at Surbiton in the second half but with the Kent side throwing caution to the wind, the Sugden Road outfit took full advantage, soaking up the pressure and hitting their rivals on the break to seal the victory.

Investec Women's Finals Weekend“In the first half we weren’t really in the game. We were slow to everything and they got to every 50-50 first. Our first touch wasn’t great and it wasn’t very solid from us.” said Wilson. “Second half I thought we were better. We had some good chances and forced their goalkeeper into some good saves. We got to a stage where we felt we really had to take the risk of chasing the game which left us a little exposed at the back. We did get reward from it, we scored a goal and we created some good chances but there was always a risk they’d catch us on the break, which they did. Today was very disappointing. The ideas were right but it didn’t quite happen for us. The score line reflects that the better team on the day won.”

Despite the setback, the title is still in Canterbury’s hands. Win their last two games, starting with relegated Olton and West Warwicks this weekend and they will be assured of top spot.  Wilson was characteristically positive ahead of their final two games, telling The Top of the D:

“I don’t think I’ll need to do anything to pick the girls up after the loss. There’s enough disappointment in the group for them to know we didn’t perform. In a season you have days like that. It’s unfortunate it’s come at a crunch time but it’s not the end of the world. There are games to play and chances for us to turn it around.” she continued “There are clear things we can work on. We want to focus on ourselves. We won’t underestimate Olton next week. We will work hard on what we did wrong today and ensure we put them right and pick up the three points next week.”

Olton, who have lost every game this season are now officially relegated and will be glad to see the back of a miserable season. A clash with the league leaders will be most unwelcome as they come to terms with their fate and face up to life outside the Premier League.

Investec Women's Finals WeekendCanterbury’s rivals for the title, Reading produced a fine display to see off playoff hopefuls Clifton, 3-1. Steve Bayer’s side fell behind but goals from Susie Gilbert, Alex Danson (her 14th of the season) and a penalty stroke from Captain Emma Thomas ensured they overturned the deficit and dented Clifton’s playoff push.

“They’re well organised and asked some different questions of us but I was pleased with how the girls handled what they had. We created plenty of chances and defended very well so overall it was a very pleasing performance.” Steve Bayer, Reading’s Coach told The Top of the D.

“They’re very different in their style and approach to games compared with other sides. Clifton come to play and have a go at teams whereas other sides try to contain you. Their movement up front is excellent and the way they play you can see they’re good enough to be a top four side.” He added “We’re happy we’ve closed the gap to Canterbury but it’s still theirs to lose. We have to keep going but it’s out of our hands at this point. They’re in the driving seat so we have to just focus on ourselves and see what happens.”

Bayer’s team face a stern examination of their title credentials against a Leicester side who still harbour playoff ambitions of their own, sitting as they do just one point behind Clifton. The Pukkas produced a great result to stay in contention with a 2-1 win over Beeston last week, Katie Long, as she so often has done in the past, popped up with the crucial strike, netting the winner with eight minutes remaining. It may not be the powerhouse Leicester we are all used to, but Bayer is taking nothing for granted:

“Leicester are our classic old foes. They’re not an easy side to overcome. They have everything to play for and are going to be keen to get a win against us, as they always are. We’ll treat them with respect, definitely. They have plenty of experienced players who can hurt you so it’s important to be prepared and ready for them.”

Clifton, as already mentioned, suffered a setback in the race for fourth as they lost out to Reading last weekend. The Silent Assassins from the West will be hoping Reading now do them a favour against Leicester and that they themselves can produce a match winning display against Sutton Coldfield. Of course Sutton currently sit in the relegation playoff place. Their chances of pulling their way out of it are getting slimmer by the week. Nothing less than two wins will suffice for Don Vinson’s team. The only side they can catch is the University of Birmingham, who they face on the final day of the season. If Birmingham, who beat bottom side Olton, last week, collect a point from their clash with Beeston this weekend, it renders the last game against Sutton more or less meaningless. Sutton would still be able to finish on the same points as Phil Gooderham’s side but the superior goal difference of the Students (+1 vs. -19) would be enough to keep them up. Beeston may not have a lot to play for in terms of league position, but perhaps they will be motivated by the prospect of helping the in-form Sophie Robinson to overhaul Alex Danson in the scorers’ charts to scoop the sponsor’s cash prize on offer for the leading scorer.

Investec Women's Hockey LeagueThat leaves the clash between Bowdon Hightown and Surbiton. Tina Cullen’s side still have a shout of sneaking into the playoffs but could not have asked for tougher fixtures in which to do it, Surbiton this week and Reading next present very difficult obstacles. Cullen came up with the winning goal in her side’s 2-1 win over Sutton last week and told TTOTD:

“We’re made up with the win after a difficult couple of weeks. It was a close game and could have gone either way. Sutton probably deserved something more from it than they got so we were delighted to get the win. We have two tough fixtures to come but still have a slim chance of a play-off place. We struggled away at Surbiton but will approach the game positively.”

Surbiton, who have already booked their playoff place, will be keen to keep their momentum going ahead of the end of season playoffs. Captain Chloe Strong told The Top of the D:

“We’re peaking at the right time of the season; it’s looking quite good ahead of playoffs. Last year stands us in good stead especially as the girls have another year’s experience under their belts which is what we needed. Getting to the playoffs was our aim and now we want to take that on a stage and get into Europe. We’ll certainly give it our all.”

As always you can keep up to date on all the results and scorers by visiting the England Hockey website.

About thetopofthed

Columnist for The Hockey Paper and the man behind The Top of the D. Writer, podcaster, goalkeeper and BBC Sport man. Used to work for Great Britain Hockey and have covered the sport at every major tournament.
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