Southampton FC Women suffered penalty shootout heartbreak in the Vitality Women's FA Cup on Sunday afternoon, losing out to Ipswich Town at the Goldstar Stadium.
There was plenty of late drama, with 90 minutes of stalemate making way for a thrilling extra-time period, containing two goals of the highest quality.
The hosts struck first through substitute Anna Grey's sumptuous half-volley, before Southampton goalkeeper Kayla Rendell headed an unbelievable 120th minute equaliser to force penalty kicks.
Ultimately, Saints were outdone by four sweetly struck spot-kicks from the hosts, with Marieanne Spacey-Cale's side only able to convert two in reply. An unjust end to an enthralling cup encounter.
Saints' FA Cup journey reached its conclusion as a result, but did so in spectacular fashion, providing great entertainment for the 1,000 strong crowd on the day. The outcome meant that Ipswich Town Women progressed to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the first time in their history - and are now edging the head-to-head battle, before the two side's meet for the third time this term in early April.
Predictably, the majority of the tie was a cagey affair. As divisional rivals, there was plenty of shared experience between the clubs, having already faced each other twice during 2021/22 - with the league decider set to take place on April 2nd.
The contingent representing both teams were numerous. Shouts of 'blue army' were being met by calls for 'red army' from the boisterous audience. It made for a feisty atmosphere as Saints attempted to silence the crowd by gaining the upper hand early on.
Spacey-Cale opted to field experience. Shelly Provan was her lively self in defence, while midfield pairing Laura Rafferty and Leeta Rutherford were selected to protect the back four, shrewdly marshalling the middle of the park. The line-up certainly made for defensive solidity, if lacking slightly in creativity going forward - illustrated by the absence of clear cut chances.
Lucia Kendall's corner was met by Georgie Freeland in the 15th minute, as she connected with the ball unopposed. She was however unsighted, by a combination of the low sun and Ipswich defenders, meaning she could only guide her header a yard over the bar.
Kendall herself tested the goalkeeper five minutes before the interval, with little for either stopper to do as the half ebbed and flowed. The forward's drive was intentional, aiming for the bottom left corner, but was well read by Sarah Quantrill.
Abbie Lafayette was the home side's brightest spark. Operating down the left, she escaped the grasp of full-back Millie Mott moments before the break, but wasn't able to test hero Rendell. Evenly poised, the second 45 minutes was bound to make for much more exciting viewing. It didn't disappoint.
Town were first to threaten. Kyra Robertson had gained initiative centrally, linking well with Zoe Barratt, although the finish did little to trouble Rendell. Up the opposite end, Provan provided Saints with some forward momentum on the hour mark, fizzing a pass into the feet of Kendall centrally, who swivelled well but fired straight at Quantrill.
Minutes after her introduction from the subs bench, Eloise King thought she had wrestled possession of the lead. A corner was swung in, recycled on the edge of the box, before falling kindly to the substitute, who fired home from close range. The ground erupted, before glancing at the lines person, who had her flag raised.
The brief scare prompted a triple substitution from the visitors. Alisha Ware, Ella Morris and Katie Rood all entered the fray, tasked with finding the opening Saints so dearly craved. Impact was immediate.
Ware was upended 20-yards from goal, with 10 minutes of normal time remaining. A promising position, Kendall placed the ball with purpose, bending her effort around the wall but was unable to beat Quantrill. Moments later, Mott's cross found Rood, but she was charged down. That move proved to be the last notable action of the half, as extra-time loomed.
The scoreline remained, with it proving seamlessly impossible to separate the sides. The reward for the victor was huge, and therefore unsurprising that the 90 minutes were tightly contested. The same applied to the opening half of additional time, cautious in approach.
Cue a grandstand finish. Suddenly, the tie exploded into life. Substitute Grey lifted the roof off the Goldstar Ground with a stunning strike that looked to have sealed the tie.
The goal arrived in the 110th minute, leaving Saints very little time to find a route back into the game. Indeed they were finding it difficult to break their hosts down in open play, but did manage to force a corner in the dying stages.
With 120 minutes on the clock, Rendell was encouraged to make her way into the opposition box, with nothing to lose, and safe to say the trip did not go to waste. She rose highest to Kendall's lofted corner, looping a header beyond the reach of Quantrill and into the net - a finish that any natural striker would be proud of.
The final whistle blew seconds later, inviting penalty kicks. Ipswich's four strikes were excellently dispatched, giving Rendell no chance of stealing any more of the afternoon's glory, with Saints only able to score twice - Rosie Parnell and Rutherford were both on target from 12 yards.
Ultimately, the defeat spells the end of the road for Saints in this year's FA Cup competition, bowing out at the same round as last season. Their attention will turn eagerly back to the league, where they remain on course to realise their overarching ambition of promotion to the FA Women's Championship.