It has been said many times that football is a crazy game. This was exemplified no more than Saturday afternoon’s encounter between Aston Villa and Bristol City in Walsall.
Both teams are in a relegation dogfight. Before yesterday’s encounter, they sat level on points at 11th (Aston Villa) and 12th (Bristol) in the table. It is one of the most exciting contests in the history of the league, with four teams in the battle to retain their FAWSL status.
Having secured a point mid-week away to West Ham, Marcus Bignot named a changed line-up. The experienced Anita Asante replaced the suspended Jodie Hutton in defence while Chloe Arthur returned to the midfield. Shania Hayles also came in to add some more potency up front.
The return of Meghan Sargeant from long-term injury was a much-needed boost for Bristol City, who are still without their captain Jasmine Matthews. She came in to partner the impressive Gemma Evans, while Keira Skeels switched to right back. Other than that, it was pretty much business as usual for Matt Beard, opting for his usual attacking setup of Charlie Wellings, Yana Daniels and Ebony Salmon.
It was the visitors who appeared to be making a quick start, producing three clear chances in as many minutes. But when pushing forward so eagerly, there is always the danger of being exposed defensively and Villa hit them where it hurt on the transition. Bristol’s frailty in defending crosses was exposed as Freya Gregory delivered to the back post. Hayles was there unmarked to head it back across goal and Sophie Baggaley could only bat it against Sargeant and into the back of the net. Matt Beard has talked in recent weeks about not conceding early and would have been furious that it had happened once again.
There was certainly a different dynamic to Villa’s performance in comparison to mid-week. The duo of Hayles and Larsen was paying off – both have the strength to hold the ball up and the pace to beat their defenders when needed. The hosts put their foot on the gas and did not let up for much of the first half. Meanwhile their defence were marshalling Ebony Salmon out of the game, restricting Bristol to a series of free kicks from range.
Villa’s second came in the 35th minute from exactly the same threat as the first. A short corner came back to Elisha N’Dow about 40 yards from goal. She lifted in a peach of a cross towards Nat Haigh at the far post, who nodded home a looping header into the far corner.
A big half-time talk was needed on Bristol’s side as they had a mountain to climb. There was a desperate need to calm down in possession and shut down the space in the midfield area. However, Villa had other ideas and burst out of the blocks at the start of the second half. Hayles flashed a volley wide before Baggaley denied Gregory with a big save and Arthur rattled the crossbar.
The visitors were improving, however, finding more space going forward and Pike forced Lisa Weiß into her first meaningful save of the game. However, it was to be Beard’s substitutions that changed the course of the match as Abi Harrison and Faye Bryson entered the field. Bristol immediately had a target player up front, with the strength to hold the ball up and let others run off her. The impact was immediate as Harrison chested down a cross into the path of Bryson, who hooked a sweet shot into the top corner; her first touch of the game.
One thing that can be said about Bristol is that they are a team that is all heart. They are not going to give up their top league status without a fight. The goal sparked them into life and from then it felt like an equaliser was inevitable. They left it late, very late, but it eventually came when Ella Mastrantonio’s free kick dipped over everyone and into the back of the net. Deep into injury time, the Robins had stolen the unlikeliest of points to keep their FAWSL dreams alive.
Was a draw enough? Only time will tell. You would have to be very brave to predict the outcome of this fight for survival. Football can swing any which way at a given moment, so hold onto your hats, this next fortnight is going to be quite a ride.