Aston Villa Women were on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline after they welcomed Brighton to the Banks’s stadium on Wednesday night.
The Villans may have beaten their opponents 2-0 earlier in the season, but this time the roles were reversed, and it was Marcus Bignot’s side that came out second best.
This became a fourth consecutive victory for the Seagulls, who have seen an incredible upturn in form in recent weeks and Hope Powell’s side now sit sixth in the league table.
Villa started the game brightly, with a slight formation shift that saw Anita Asante sit just ahead of the back three in midfield.
Twice the hosts found themselves in plenty of space down the right in the opening stages, managing to get crosses into the box and on both occasions, they were comfortably collected by the Brighton keeper.
The first big opportunity fell to the visitors, though, as Maya Le Tissier had an effort tipped over the bar by Lisa Weiss.
Villa fought back and on 14 minutes, a huge chance fell to Chloe Arthur in the box as she drilled an effort towards goal, but an outstretched leg from Walsh denied what would’ve been a fantastic finish.
Brighton found an opener less than 10 minutes later after they caught Villa out on the break; Megan Connolly’s initial effort was pushed away by Weiss, but Aileen Whelan was quick to pounce on the rebound.
The midfielder fired it into the back of the net and the Villa keeper was injured in the process, whilst she was down receiving treatment, the team were able to regroup before play resumed.
The task before Bignot’s side became increasingly more difficult and they had to rediscover the rhythm they started with after going behind.
It took until the closing stages of the first half, but some good attacking play saw Shania Hayles get forward and draw a decent save from Walsh.
Emma Follis then found some space on the left flank and was able to get a dangerous cross into the box that found Iwabuchi.
Her shot was comfortably cleared, but only to the feet of Asante, who decided to have a go at goal herself, but her effort was unable to avoid the Brighton bodies in the box and a scramble eventually saw the ball cleared for a Villa corner.
Villa ended the first half as they meant to go on, but their strong start after the break was eventually cancelled out by a second Brighton goal.
They carved a few half-chances as Hayles saw a shot go fractionally wide of the near post, Caroline Siems fired an effort over the bar, and the Brighton defense were forced into numerous last-ditch clearances.
But with 80 minutes gone, as the game was hanging in the balance, Villa were dealt another blow after Weiss was deemed to have fouled Inessa Kaagman in the box and was booked for the challenge.
The referee pointed to the spot and Kaagman made no mistake, she sent her spot-kick beyond the Villa keeper to extend their lead and all but secure the three points.
It will be a tough defeat to take given Villa played well in large spells and the game was lost in two decisive moments; moments that defender Jodie Hutton believes they should’ve handled better.
“The penalty was harsh, and we didn’t agree with that, but they shouldn’t have been in that situation anyway,” said Hutton.
“As with the first goal, it should never have been a goal, we should’ve won the ball before it even got there.”
It was the other end of the pitch, though, where Villa faced their greatest struggle as chances came and quickly passed without reward.
“In the first half we should’ve taken our chances,” Hutton continued. “But we didn’t so it’s very frustrating.”
“I think that’s the story of our season, we create the chance but just can’t seem to get it in the net, that’s happened in a few games now.”
The manager’s take was one of understanding as Bignot said: “I can understand it [struggling to take chances] because we haven’t spent a lot of time in the final third recently due to the opposition we’ve been facing!”
“It’s for us to work with the players in the week but we’ve got Chelsea next, so we probably won’t spend much time in the final third, but when we do, we’ve really got to take our moments.”
The task was always going to be a challenging one; Brighton are a different prospect compared to what they were in the reverse fixture a few months ago and going behind in the first half made things much harder.
The break in play whilst Weiss received treatment allowed Bignot to gather his players and get them to regroup, ensuring past mistakes were not repeated.
“It was a reset and rewire,” he continued. “In recent games when we’ve conceded, we’ve done so again in the 15-20-minute window after that, so there’s growth in the group that we didn’t tonight.”
“It allowed us to stay in the game and an unfortunate penalty really took the game away from us a little bit, but we still remained positive and we were still trying to get that goal to swing momentum towards us but it wasn’t to be and we ran out of time, but we’ll have our time I’m sure.”
The situation has grown even tighter in the relegation fight after West Ham lifted themselves from the bottom of the table on goal difference after drawing 2-2 with Birmingham City.
Bristol City fell to a 3-0 defeat at home to Man City and, despite now sitting in 12th, they’re still level on points with the Hammers and only a point behind Villa, making the run in even more interesting.