The Ladies capped a fine weekend for Crystal Palace FC with a solid 2-0 win at home to Gillingham on Sunday.
In a match that, if won, would see The Eagles close the gap on leaders Charlton to just two points, the stakes were high at Hayes Lane.
In a fixture that is often a close affair (Palace won 1-0 earlier in the season at The Priestfields Stadium), The Ladies knew that they could take nothing for granted. Starting on the front foot, in front of over 250 fans, Palace looked to set the early pace and manage the game through possession. Gillingham had come to the match, well prepared and set up to stifle the hosts, with Kallie Balfour their main focus when looking to counter. Despite the possession, Palace were unable to capitalise on some good chances created from open play, despite the constant threat of Gemma Bryan, Nikita Whinnett and Ellie Stenning. Set-pieces offered an alternative outlet, with Ciara Sherwood going close from one of a number of free-kicks conceded by Gillingham as they sought to disrupt the rhythm. A number of Palace corners also went begging through the lack of a final touch and some last ditched defending.
Gillingham did look to counter when the opportunity allowed, although were marshalled effectively by a fine defensive display from the recently reunited Freya Holdaway and Sarah Jones – following the return to Palace for Jones. In turn, the defence was well protected by the highly industrious further, recent addition to the ranks and the returning Lilli Maple, defensive and creative abilities were present for all to see.
Albeit, with an element of frustration, Palace went in at half time, not having broken the deadlock, knowing that based on the opening forty-five minutes, the game was there for the taking.
Stepping out for the second half, Palace sought to maintain the momentum and continued to take the game to the visitors with Bryan ably supported by the industrious Ellie Bailes and Pammy McRoberts. As Gillingham retreated deeper, the chances for Palace went closer, with Bryan looking ever more likely to close in on her one hundred goals for Palace.
The breakthrough finally came, in the fifty-fourth minute when Bryan was set free by an lobbed pass from Whinnett, in the inside right channel and cut in towards the six yard box . Showing her all round quality, as the keeper closed the angle, Bryan looked up and slid the ball between keeper and defender for the on-rushing Stenning to slide on to and fire home.
Palace now looked to kill the game off, with some impressive periods of possession and in the sixty-third minute, roles were reversed following Stenning being set free by a perfect pass from Rosie Paye, close in on goal and pass across the six yard area for Bryan, who unable to convert at the first opportunity, spun and fired back across the goal into the left hand corner.
From the second goal onwards, it was pretty much all Palace, who could have added more but for some further resolute defending and good goal-keeping by Shanly between the Gillingham posts.
Palace comfortably saw out the remainder of the match for the win that brought them to within the two points of Charlton at the top of the table. The Eagles have tough games to come but for manager Dean Davenport, the result against Gillingham was crucial
“To get the three points in our first league game back after the Christmas break was essential. With Charlton in cup action, this allowed us to create some parity at the top end of the table; making the most of our game in hand. We knew that we would have to be patient against Gillingham as we knew that they would come with a very defensive mind-set. Whilst this does not always lead to the most open football or spectacle, it can be effective. The girls knew that patience, game management and their experience would be key. They did not allow themselves to become frustrated and trusted in their abilities – getting their rewards as the game progressed.”
Asked as to key performances, Davenport enthused in respect of all his squad.
“What we have is a squad mentality, mixed with real ability. We are still learning and looking to add quality and variety where we can, but each of those girls did themselves proud today. It was good to see our two signings settle straight back in, with Sarah looking like she has never been away and Lilli voted player of the match for a performance that would please any manager or team mate.”
Palace Ladies travel to QPR Ladies next Sunday for their next League match. Full details will be published on social media and the Palace Ladies website this week.