The stakes were raised on Saturday afternoon as Aston Villa returned to league action in a somewhat precarious position near the bottom of the table. With their game against Arsenal falling foul of the weather last weekend, Bristol’s first win of the season narrowed the gap as the relegation battle in the Barclays FAWSL heats up.
Marcus Bignot had faced a predictably tough start to his new tenure, with his charges defeated by a seemingly unstoppable Chelsea side ten days previously. There were some notable absentees amongst his squad with Ramona Petzelberger, Chloe Arthur and Shania Hayles missing, while youngsters Freya Gregory, Olivia McLoughlin and Isobel Goodwin were named on the bench. Jodie Hutton came into the starting XI, replacing Caroline Siems at left back, while Diana Silva joined Larsen up front in place of Sophie Haywood.
On the other hand, Tottenham travelled to Walsall, riding the wave of the arrival Rehanne Skinner. Yes, they had lost to Chelsea last time out but the three wins before that had set them on a solid path, lifting them to seventh in the table. There were two changes to the starting line-up. With Ashleigh Neville missing, Ria Percival slotted in a right back and new signing Cho So-hyun getting her first start in the middle. Meanwhile, Rianna Dean replaced Jessica Naz up front.
Going on form, most would have predicted Tottenham really taking the game to Aston Villa, but the opposite occurred throughout the first half. The hosts were on the front foot from the whistle, hassling and harrying Spurs when out of possession and using the pace of their forwards to make headway up front.
They took advantage after only 12 minutes on the clock. It was the magical Mana Iwabuchi, potentially the signing of the winter, who broke the deadlock in spectacular fashion. Running onto a clearing header, she spotted her opportunity 20 yards from goal, dipping her strike over Aurora Mikalsen into the far corner. It was as good a strike of the football as you will see from a truly special player.
“She’s [Iwabuchi] a standout player on the pitch. There’s a World Cup winner there; endless league titles across the world…But what’s really good about her, although she’s an unbelievable talent, you can see the other side of her game….That’s an example for all these young players that a player with that ability works that hard.”
A little shell-shocked, it took Tottenham time to settle but they began to gather momentum as the first half drew to a close. Kit Graham’s drilled shot went narrowly
wide before Alanna Kennedy’s first-time hit from a clearance dipped over the bar. Villa’s defence creaked but their five-player backline held strong, keeping Spurs’ opportunities at a distance.
Tottenham returned for the second half with renewed energy as they searched for an equaliser. They were improved on the ball but struggled to produce clear-cut opportunities. In fact, the hosts still looked the most likely to score and Mikalsen was a little lucky to only see yellow when she felled Silva just outside the box to stop the striker getting through.
Villa’s effort was second to none with the players leaving every ounce of energy on the pitch. This was illustrated no more so than when Jodie Hutton, covered head to toe in mud, fell to the ground in the 80th minute, every ounce of energy expended from running up and down the left flank. It was a contribution deservedly recognised by her manager: “I thought she was excellent today. And again, someone who went above and beyond physicality – she was only supposed to play an hour, and she got up to 80. She was absolutely superb.”
With eight minutes added on, Villa continued to keep the visitors at bay and held on for a hugely valuable three points, lifting them up to ninth. A clearly delighted Bignot encouraged his side to welcome their situation and push their way up the league table: “I said to the players beforehand, let’s embrace the situation…instead of [thinking about] Bristol winning, we were thinking, “Well, if we beat Tottenham, we’re only two points behind them.” And that brings Tottenham into it. So, the more teams we can bring into it, the better for us. We’ll embrace it but that situation won’t define us.”
With city rivals Birmingham on the horizon, this rung on the ladder will have done plenty for the confidence of a team that has been obviously lacking this year. As for Tottenham, the disappointment will reign, knowing that they did not give the best account of themselves. There are many battles still to be fought and, now more than ever, it is anyone’s guess who will survive.