After a tough run of fixtures, Aston Villa finally had a chance on the road to take points from recently promoted Bristol City. The Robins, who have proven a tough opponent so far in the competition, even causing the likes of Arsenal to struggle, were the ones who stood between Carla Ward’s side and their first win of the season.
The gaffer knew after a staggering 0-6 loss to Chelsea in the previous fixture that some things needed to change, and that was reflected in the starting lineup. Although the backline remained unchanged (helping to build their relationship with new goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar), Ward implemented three changes from last week including Canadian international Adriana Leon getting a well-deserved start in place of Alisha Lehmann.
The midfield trio also got a reshuffle, with captain Rachel Corsie coming back into the start XI in a bid to tighten and control what has been a problematic area in recent weeks for the team. The third and final change, however, was the one the fans have been waiting desperately for: the return of the French magician Kenza Dali.
Dali’s absence dealt a crucial blow to the squad after she picked up an injury during the World Cup in the summer, and most fans have reflected on the season so far wondering what could have been if we’d have had our creative midfielder with us since the start?
The travelling fans (myself included) were in full voice from the very first whistle, hoping to instil confidence in our Villans who were still looking for a vital three points. However, Bristol are not the easy opposition some expected them to be this season and despite Villa dominating throughout, the home side had the better of the chances throughout the first 70 or so minutes.
It was fantastic to see Van Domselaar looking much more confident, coming out of her goal to meet the opposition and being the strong figure at the back that Villa have been missing so far. Her quality was called into action in the 75th minute when experienced Northern Ireland international Rachel Furness took a shot from range and Van Domselaar had to tip it over the bar for a crucial save.
This new display of fire and drive could be due to the fact that Anna Leat had a brilliant night between the sticks during Villa’s 0-5 win in the Continental Cup against Sheffield United (including a penalty save), showing Van Domselaar that although she was brought in to be number one, she now knows she has some very good competition on the bench.
After the change of personnel, it was disappointing to see Leon not get much service in the first 30 minutes of the match. Anna Patten chose to continually play down the left and pick out Kirsty Hanson. Although that’s great when it works, Dri was completely unmarked whereas Kirsty was constantly surrounded by red shirts. Luckily, when play stopped for injury time, Dri was able to talk to the team and when play resumed she was much more involved. This shows that as the team are growing together, they’re showing greater initiative and clearer communication during the match which can only consolidate their quality moving forward.
Watching Dali back on the pitch was an absolute pleasure. Her creative skills have been sorely missed and the way she seems to skip through midfield and pick out passes and through balls with great accuracy is just fantastic to watch.
However, Villa just couldn’t seem to make the most of their chances and even though they had 17 shots compared to Bristol’s six, only six of those were on target. Showing a clinical edge in front of goal has been an issue for a while now and still needs to be addressed in training, as Villa could easily have scored five or six. Rachel Daly and Sarah Mayling, for example, were so close to seeing their names on the scoresheet both from range and a free kick.
But the anticipation was building for Villa. A goal was coming. We could feel it in the stands.
On a yellow card and having run her socks off all match, Leon was replaced by Ebony Salmon in the 65th minute. So far, Salmon has shown moments of quality since she signed but hasn’t lived up to some fans’ expectations. But that was about to change.
After the Furness scare in the 75th minute, the game continued to be end-to-end and Villa attacked once more seeking their first goal. Building from the back, space was found down the right-hand side as Salmon picked up the ball, turned beautifully and crossed the ball for Daly in the box, and the ball deflected in for an own goal.
It took a slice of luck, but it was met with celebrations, drums, trumpets, whistles and chants. The Villa fans were on their feet knowing that their team wouldn’t stop at just one goal if they could help it. Another was definitely on the way.
Just under 10 minutes later, it was Salmon who found herself in space again and could run straight into the box. She attempted a shot with Hanson and Daly in support and after the ball was cleared back to Salon, who drove home on her left foot to make it 0-2 in the 86th minute and seal the win.
Even though Bristol kept fighting right until the end, they just couldn’t get anything back in the match and the final whistle blew. The smiles on the fans’ faces were reflected in the beaming grins of the players as they fistbumped the air and clapped the travelling supporters. Chants of “we love you Carla, we do!” filled the stadium as the gaffer also walked over to show her appreciation for the support and passion of the fans.
A scrappy victory, but we’ll gladly take the first three points of the season as we move off the bottom spot and into 11th place in the table; or, as the fans were chanting, “we’re Aston Villa and we’re 10th from the top!”
Next up is another away fixture to West Ham United, where hopefully Villa’s winning streak can continue against a Hammers side who struggled against a 5-0 defeat to Manchester United in their last match. Momentum is key, and Villa finally have it.