Aston Villa threw away a comfortable two goal lead over Bristol City with a 95th minute goal securing a draw for the visitors.
Marcus Bignot’s team dominated the match, but a late strike from Ella Mastrantonio condemned them to a draw. Villa had the lion's share of chances, with Mana Iwabuchi taking the ball beyond Sophie Baggaley mere moments before the equaliser, but she could not set up a teammate. This draw doesn’t help either side as both stay level on points at the bottom of the league.
- Story of the match
It was a rapid start for Villa who took the lead after just four minutes. Stine Larsen, who has so often been the driving force for Villa this season, carried the ball out of midfield and set up Freya Gregory. The youngster looped in a fine cross towards Shania Hayles at the far post who heads it back across the face of goal. It looked as if Sophie Baggaley had dealt with it, but it bounced off Meaghan Sargeant and into the net. It was cruel on the defender returning after 15 months out through injury, but Villa was not complaining.
The visitors came back fighting from the early setback, with Ebony Salmon especially looking lively. The former Villa star had early tussles with her ex-teammate Elisha N’Dow. The Villa captain went into the book for a robust tackle on the England international early on. Despite this pressure from Bristol City, most of the chances fell to the hosts. Shortly before N’Dow’s booking, Mana Iwabuchi selflessly chose to pass instead of shooting from range, but her pass went into touch and the chance went begging.
A particular bright point for the hosts was the performances of two academy graduates, Gregory and Olivia McLoughlin. In fact, five of Villa’s starting 11 came from Villa’s academy, as N’Dow, Hayles and Asmita Ale were all products of Bodymoor Heath, though Hayles spent time at Birmingham City. Despite McLoughlin being a schoolgirl aged just 16, she put in a composed performance in the first half. She almost managed to register an assist when her brilliant cross was headed just wide by Stine Larsen.
Villa began dominating the game towards the end of the half and they got their reward ten minutes before half time. Iwabuchi played a short corner to Anita Asante, who gave it straight to N’Dow. The Villa skipper arched in a cross towards the waiting Villa forwards, but it was met by her defensive partner Nat Haigh who looped a header over Baggaley into the net.
Matt Beard’s side came close twice towards the end of the half, with the first chance coming from Salmon. The current Bristol City top scorer swerved past N’Dow and curled an effort towards the far corner. Despite looking bound for her target, it went agonisingly wide. The second came from an improvised overhead kick that troubled Lisa Weiss but skimmed the crossbar on its way over.
The second half started at the same lightning tempo, with Gregory forcing a strong save from Baggaley within three minutes of the restart. Both sides had chances from range soon after, with the first falling to the visitors. Molly Pike fired an optimistic effort from 30 yards out, but her arrow-straight effort was too low and went straight into Weiss’s arms. Villa’s chance came soon after, with Chloe Arthur firing a thunderous effort straight into the crossbar. Both sides came out fighting, but neither could force a goal.
Faye Bryson scored the goal of the game 15 minutes from time with an acrobatic effort looping over Weiss and into the net. Villa weathered the initial push and looked comfortable, even threatening Baggaley more than once before the leveller. However, they threw away the lead and what would have been a precious two points.
Villa still have the advantage going into the final fortnight of the season, having a better goal difference and a game in hand on Bristol City. Their final three games are a trip to local rivals Birmingham City, a clash at Villa Park with West Ham, and a final game in the capital against Arsenal. As for Bristol City, their final two matches are a home clash with Manchester United and a trip down south to Brighton & Hove Albion.
Takeaways from the match
Bristol City are far from down and out
The recovery of Bristol City since the arrival of Matt Beard has been quite remarkable. While at one point it seemed as if they were going down without a fight, they have started swinging and picking up valuable results. While they have the more difficult run-in, it is far from impossible to see them forcing a result from one of their games.
Villa are their own worst enemy
Despite putting in one of their best performances of the season, Villa threw it all away with a poor piece of defending. There has been a marked improvement in their defending over the last two games, but it still may not be enough. They need a titanic effort against Birmingham and West Ham to ensure their safety or risk dropping into the second tier.
Stars of the match
From a Villa perspective, their best player was easily Olivia McLoughlin. Despite not only being two months off finishing her GCSEs but also playing out of position, she put in a composed performance in midfield to control the game.
For the visitors, their standout was Sophie Baggaley. While her performance wasn’t perfect, she led effectively from the back and chipped in with a big save at the start of the second half.