Déjà vu in Berkhamsted
Watford started the match as they had done against Everton a month prior; sluggish for the first five minutes before they started to find their feet and assert themselves into the match. But it was in those early exchanges that Villa could have made their quick start count as the hosts worked the ball quickly down the right before Kerrie Welsh fired narrowly wide.
As soon as Watford settled they started passing the ball around with ease, confidence from recent results coursing through their veins as Villa’s make-shift back three was put under pressure. When the Golden Girls broke through the defence they were met with a brick wall in the shape of Reading loanee, Grace Moloney, conversely when the Villains tested Lucy Gillett, the Watford ‘keeper looked uncertain and her goal vulnerable.
Watford’s best chance of the opening fifteen minutes came through Giulia Ferrandi as the striker unleashed a vicious 25 yard half-volley that Moloney managed to tip onto the bar. The Villa defence scrambling as Jordan Littleboy saw her shot saved off the line by a diving Maddy Cusack before Moloney turned her follow up around the post.
At the other end a miscommunication saw Gillett racing out of her goal and tangling with Tash Baptiste who wriggled away but chose to lay-off to Sarah Mayling instead of firing at the open goal. Mayling ended up taking an unnecessary touch as the Golden Girls streamed back to block her route to goal.
After a lengthy delay as an attacker received treatment from the physio in the box the game was back under way and visitors were looking more dangerous but the hosts continued to hold them at arms’ length. Five minutes after Mayling saw her rising shot dent the crossbar the Lady Villains were celebrating as Beth Merrick grabbed her fifth of the season. Merrick had gotten into a more advanced position and sent a speculative shot towards goal, Gillett who hadn’t had a huge amount to do went to grab the tame effort and was left red-faced after the ball slipped through her gloves and into the net.
The goal has largely been against the run of play and not only served to give the visitors the lead but to completely unseat the hosts in the process.
As one team began to sink the other took a firm hold of the reigns and Villa began to run the show, forcing Gillett to make a low save after a well struck volley from Welsh. With Watford unable to get themselves back on firm footing, all home eyes were on the clock, urging their side to make it to the break just one goal down. As we entered stoppage time Villa broke forward once more, Anneka Nuttall tussling with Baptiste just outside the box, yellow shirts watching on as the captain lost the ball before Baptiste rearranged her feet and sent the ball curling towards the far top corner.
Moloney was once again called it action early in the second-half to tip Ann-Laure Davy’s dipping header over the bar, but from there the Golden Girls began to fade, will Villa dictating play. With Gillett tested by another strong Baptise effort, the Watford keeper surrendering a corner as she turned the ball around the post.
The Watford defence holding firm halfway through the second-half as first debutant Lauren Jordinson then Watford favourite Phoebe Read blocked Baptiste and Alys Hinchcliffe’s respective efforts. Gillett called into action once again to drop onto a Welsh volley.
The game was wearing on and the hosts looked like a shadow of who they were in the first-half, chasing the opponents around the pitch, first-half confidence scrapped, still reeling from conceding.
With ten minutes’ left Baptiste saw another shot flash wide after meeting a pin-point cross from Hannah George before the striker launched the ball over the bar after some neat work from substitute Nicola Potts before completing her hat trick of chances by heading straight at a grateful Gillett.
From an away point of view it’s a good three points to pick up on the road. Not at their best in the first-half but their half-time advantage was enough to see them through although their second-half was far better. Whether or not their make-shift three at the back would have been able to stand up to the likes of Yeovil or Everton is up for debate but those drafted in did all that was asked of them. Those in more familiar roles seemed more than capable, Merrick once again controlling the game in the heart of midfield and Moloney in superb form between the sticks. Higher up the pitch Baptiste is proving her worth and doing well whilst first choice striker, Katie Wilkinson is out indefinitely with the no.19 looking dangerous throughout.
For the hosts, it was a frustrating watch. The Golden Girls were well on top but conceded an agonisingly sloppy and thoroughly avoidable goal from then out they completely capitulated, heads dropping and looking off the pace for the rest of the match. The second goal would have been a body blow but after coming back from three goals down against Oxford last week, they’ve shown they’re more than capable yet instead of rising to the challenge they completely sunk into themselves.
The most startling thing, how different they looked in the first-half to the second, when they were on top in the first they were knocking the ball around smoothly and playing confidently. In recent weeks – their win against Everton for example – they’ve oozed confidence and for the first time in a long time, looked like they actually believe in their own abilities. They’ve been confident and they’ve been hungry, yet after conceding they looked like the Watford of last season.