Southern United 5
Capital Football 4
Sunnyvale Park, 9 December 2018
National Women’s League Match Week 13
Southern United and Capital closed out their 2018 National Women’s League season in entertaining fashion at Sunnyvale on Sunday afternoon, with the home team edging a nine-goal thriller.
With a finals spot out of reach for both sides there might have been little on the line, but that didn’t stop both teams from putting on a clinic of entertaining attacking football on the open expanse of the Sunnyvale pitch.
Southern United had scored 13 goals on their way to winning their last two matches in a late-season resurgence. Meanwhile, Capital were coming off the back of a thrilling win over the Pride last week, and were able to call on internationals including Sarah Gregorius, Anna Green, and U17’s star Maya Hahn.
Southern got off to a great start, awarded a penalty in the 8th minute after an unfortunate handball. Midfielder Shontelle Smith stepped up and buried the spot-kick low into the corner of the net; it would be one of four penalties to be scored on the afternoon.
The sides traded blows for the next 10 minutes, before the visitors had a great chance to equalise. Some good pressing from the Capital attackers saw the ball fall to Gregorius near the penalty spot, but her shot cannoned against the crossbar.
Southern made them pay by scooting downfield a minute later to double their advantage. It was the livewire Renee Bacon who was the architect – firstly putting some tenacious pressure on the Capital defence to win an attacking throw-in, before racing onto the quickly taken throw and floating in an inch-perfect cross from the by-line for Chelsea Whittaker to nod home the easiest of headers.
The match was frenetic. Just moments later, the visitors hit the crossbar again. It seemed it just wasn’t going to be their day.
But then Capital finally opened their account. In the 35th minute, a Hahn corner resulted in a mistimed header under pressure which was adjudged to have struck Smith’s arm. Gregorius calmly slotted the penalty to get the visitors back into the game.
Cue the immediate Southern backlash. The hard-working Georgia Brown won a crunching sliding tackle before feeding Mikayla Gray, whose cross was met first-time by Whittaker but was sliced just wide of Natasha Ingram in Capital’s goal.
The home team was piling the pressure on now, with Capital struggling to get out of their own half. Crosses were being pinged into their box with regularity, although Ingram wasn’t tested often enough.
Southern had been the better team for much of the first half, and possibly felt the 2-1 scoreline at the break didn’t do their performance justice. Perhaps coach Ignacio Sande had expressed that in the sheds, as there was a renewed hunger evident as soon as the second half commenced.
Just two minutes into the second spell, winger Gray pounced on a defensive lapse on the halfway line. She dribbled towards the Capital box, and then squared a perfectly weighted ball to an unmarked Bacon to slide underneath Ingram to restore the two-goal cushion. 3-1.
That position of comfort didn’t last long though; another Hahn corner, and another mistimed clearance was adjudicated to have struck a Southern arm. Gregorius’ successful spot-kick was a carbon-copy of her opener.
It only felt like a minute later that the ball fell to Bacon 40 metres out from goal. She spotted Ingram a few metres off her line, and launched an audacious first-time shot goalward. Bacon’s effort was on target and agonisingly out of reach of the Capital keeper who could only watch the ball sail over her head and into the middle of her goal. 4-2, surely the visitors had been repelled?
Of course not! This game was getting crazier. Immediately from their kickoff, Capital surged forward. Half a dozen passes later and the ball was dinked over the defence, and Gregorius got the better of her marker to be through on goal. She appeared to scuff her shot, but it still trickled out of reach of Jordan Woodward to nestle in the net.
Just another 60 seconds later, and Gregorius had another glorious chance, this time to tie things up. On this occasion though, Woodward got her hand to the powerful shot and parried it wide. Perhaps the pressure from Southern captain Mikaela Hunt had done just enough to make it tricky for the Ferns striker.
Things had to calm down for a few minutes, although Capital were now playing with plenty of confidence as they sensed their chance to get on even terms. Their possession wasn’t leading to further chances though, and ended up allowing the home team to punish them with a perfectly executed counter attack.
Capital had been awarded an attacking free-kick, but Southern youngster Lara Wall instinctively intercepted a stray pass and powered her way to the halfway line. She saw Gray peel into space on the right, and lifted a perfect ball to her Dunedin Technical teammate. Gray still had plenty to do; but with the ball glued to her boots, she cut infield, skinned a defender, and then blasted a left-footed shot into the net. 5-3 with 15 minutes to play.
After end-to-end action throughout the match, no-one was going to assume the scoring would end at eight goals. Sure enough, just three minutes later Gregorius was on the scoresheet for a fourth time – and for the third time it was from the penalty spot. It was another slightly odd award; seemingly once again for an innocuous handball. Gregorius had no qualms stepping up to the mark again, this time sending her spot-kick to Woodward’s right and past the keeper’s outstretched gloves.
Gregorius had remarkably scored all four goals for the visitors. Although three of these were penalties, she was a constant threat throughout the match – regularly dropping deep and finding space, before dancing into attacking positions. It was great to watch such a classy player put on a clinical display.
Back to a one-goal margin with ten minutes to play. After Bacon narrowly missed completing a hat-trick against her former team by thundering a shot against the woodwork, the visitors had a couple of great chances late on to just about snatch a draw, including a stoppage-time effort that Woodward spectacularly tipped wide.
The final whistle sounded; Southern had hung on for a 5-4 win, and finally gotten a win over Capital. By my reckoning, that means that the Southerners have now beaten every other Federation at least once over the past two seasons. Who could have predicted that a couple of years ago?
It’s been an interesting season for Southern. Some will simply look at the table and see the team in fifth spot and comfortably out of the finals race, after booking a first-ever playoff spot last season. I would argue however that they’ve developed into a better and more consistent unit this season. Last season, they pulled off some major upsets against top teams, but failed to back it up against teams that weren’t in the reckoning for the playoffs. They also relied heavily on the efforts of superstars Ellie Isaac (who was voted the league’s MVP in 2017), and Elise Mamanu-Gray (who deservedly earned a first-ever Football Ferns cap at the tail-end of the year).
This season they’ve been without both of those standout players, but that’s forced the entire squad to step up and I think it’s fair to say that every single squad member has improved in leaps and bounds over their levels of a season or two ago. They can all feel like they genuinely belong in the country’s flagship competition.
Although they’ve lost half of their 12 matches in 2018, they’ve all been by only one or two goal margins. A punishing mid-season stretch of five consecutive losses left them out of finals contention, but they were never put to the sword and that run was book-ended by some wonderful football played with a remarkable confidence that simply hasn’t been witnessed down this end of the country before.
There now appears to be some genuine depth in the squad, and some exciting young talent coming through the ranks. Having reported on all of their six home matches this season, it’s great to see that last season’s surprise package is now turning into something special longer-term. Hopefully the next step will be more of our region’s stars earning a chance to shine on the international stage.
Categories: NZ Women's National League