Crystal Palace Ladies continued their impressive march towards the half way point of the league season by adding another win to their unbeaten season in the FA Women's Premier League. This time, the points came from a tough trip to fellow high-fliers Luton Town Ladies. Ahead of the game, albeit having played a game less, Palace were only two points clear of Luton in second.
Speaking before the match, Head Coach, Dean Davenport, recognised the significance of the match; the fixture that had seen Palace resoundingly beaten, in a game that considerably affected the Palace promotion efforts, last season.
"This is a big game for whichever team wins today," he said. "If we take the points we go five clear of Luton with a game in hand. They win, and it really opens things up. Not least for Gillingham who have games in hand and potentially are one point behind us right now."
Davenport had the benefit of the returning Rochelle Shakes to the strike force, with fit again Nicha Dyett on the bench as he set out to dominate and maximise possession against an opponent that he knew would be well organised.
On a tricky pitch, but backed by some welcome away support, including fans from outside the capital, the Palace Ladies set out as instructed in a bid to keep Luton on the back foot. In the eighth minute following good approach play from Pam McRoberts on the right and a partial clearance by the home goalkeeper, the in-form Mary Robinson coolly controlled the ball, shifted her position and fired home from eighteen yards.
The goal was what Palace needed to help settle and they could have added on occasions through the first half had the final finish been a little more clinical. Shakes was causing regular problems across the Luton back line, with intelligent and disruptive running, supported by industrious midfield and back four support.
The match, at times affected by the two table toppers cancelling each other out, ebbed and flowed, but resulted in little for Palace 'keeper Sam Saint to worry about beyond a few regulation saves.
Half time saw The Eagles urged by Davenport to mix their options up a little. With Luton looking to use their pacey number ten, Fensome on quick counter attacks, Palace were asked to add to the possession football and look for similar quick and direct passages of play as a testing alternative. Again, in a half that was indicative of the two teams efforts to control key areas, chances were few and far between; although
Palace could have doubled their lead early on, through Shakes, who was unable to convert a chance that her endeavour deserved. However, as typical of The Ladies this season, the effort and desire continued, with a belief that the second goal was within their grasp.
On 81 and 85 minutes, Davenport made changes, with Jade Davenport coming on for Abi Igbavboa and then Alma Donohoe and Nicha Dyett replacing Robinson and Shakes.
Almost immediately, following good passages of play, Palace secured a free kick on the far left that was delivered into the box, with precision by Freya Holdaway. Running from right to left, across the central defenders and losing her marker, Donohoe headed from around the penalty spot, across the 'keeper into the far right corner to put Palace beyond reach and start some jubilant scenes amongst the Palace bench.
As would be expected from a title challenger, Luton continued the fight and were awarded a glimmer of hope in the dying seconds of injury time when Davenport, to everyone's surprise, was judged to have fouled a Luton player in the area. The resulting penalty was dispatched by Zara Carroll, albeit, not in time for it to make a difference to the destination of the points. The final whistle blew shortly after with The Eagles claiming a deserved three points that puts them five clear of Luton with a game in hand.
Speaking after the match, a pleased head coach explained: "We knew this would be tougher than our recent 5-0 win in the cup against Luton. They are a solid team and are where they are in the league on merit. We had spoken with the girls about the importance of staying calm, and sticking to what we do best.
"We all knew the first goal would be important, so to get it early was really good for us. I was pleased for Mary as she has worked so hard this season, often providing for others, so to see her get things going was great."
Dean added: "To be fair we could have added to the goals a little earlier, but we didn't manage to maximise our one on ones. That said, I thought our forwards worked really hard today and demonstrated what a strong, varied and cohesive unit they are, whether starting or coming in from the bench"
Keen not to solely single out the forwards, Dean was quick to praise the defence, saying: "We did have our moments at the back too. Luton looked especially dangerous from corners and I though that the girls at the back dealt with the threat really well."
Asked as to the importance of the win, Dean was as cautious as ever, saying: "All wins are good wins in a tight campaign like this, so I have to be pleased.
"Luton will certainly give our other rivals a tough game, so beyond the three points today, this result may well carry an extra bonus. We are now about half way through the fixture list and having only dropped two points is a real credit to the hard work and belief within the camp. But, everyone knows that even harder work starts now, to ensure we keep momentum into the business end of the season. This was a major factor in our efforts last year and we can't let cup distractions or a loss of focus affect the great work so far.
"Thankfully, we have a group of players who epitomise the Palace way. Strong in spirit, belief, integrity and effort. Whatever happens this season, it won't be for the want of trying."
Crystal Palace Ladies FC travel to Denham Ladies in the final qualifying round of The FA Cup on Sunday 08th November. Kick off is at 2pm. Further match details will be on the club website (www.crystalpalaceladiesfc.co.uk
) and Twitter (@PalaceLadiesFC
) feed this week.
Everyone connected with Palace Ladies would like to sincerely thank all those who continue to support the ongoing efforts of everyone involved.
Crystal Palace Ladies FC. South London And Proud.