Southampton edged a tightly contested clash at MK Dons' makeshift home ground Wootton Blue Cross FC on Sunday afternoon, overcoming difficult conditions to win by a single goal.
The victory was earned by a solo Ella Pusey strike, and some last-ditch heroics from Kayla Rendell between the sticks, who was called into action late on after being reduced to a bystander for the majority of the tie.
Three points were no less than the gritty performance deserved, despite the modest scoreline, and ensures Saints stay in pursuit of the league's summit.
Substitute Katie Rood hit the crossbar in stoppage time, and was unlucky not to add to the afternoon's goal tally, but maximum spoils were secure by that point - exactly what Saints needed to kickstart 2022, having not played a competitive fixture since mid-December.
The boggy pitch was making it difficult for Saints to find any passing rhythm in the opening stages, in spite of their desire to do so. The conditions were also making crunching challenges commonplace, giving the tie a competitive spark. An entertaining encounter for a game that was yet to include much goalmouth action.
The visitors dominated possession, forcing half chances from distance, but weren't able to create any decisive openings. Lucia Kendall came closest for Saints, without really troubling MK Dons stopper Chloe Sansom.
Pusey nearly benefited from a poor Sansom clearance in the 38th minute, shooting first time with the goal unoccupied, but the ball arrived at her feet quickly and she wasn't able to aim accurately. The shot trickled wide, but efforts on goal were now more forthcoming.
Pusey again went close moments later, after sharp play from Shelly Provan. The full-back was well advanced down the left, before finding the feet of the striker centrally. Pusey swivelled efficiently, using the momentum on the ball to evade a tackle, before firing marginally wide from 10 yards. The move was Saints' best of the half.
The away side, in their traditional yellow strip, were gaining most joy from wide areas. Crosses were numerous, but often well-defended. Avoiding the middle of the pitch was key to any success, a tactic employed far more after the break. As the interval loomed Saints continued to press, greeted by the Bedfordshire sunshine, but not by a breakthrough.
The visitors started the second period brightly, intent on making use of the strategy that had presented the most opportunity over the course of the first 45 minutes - get the ball wide. Moments later, Alisha Ware travelled into space down the left, spotting targets in the box. Pusey was arriving, with Sophia Pharaoh for company, but the delivery had too much pace on it and escaped both.
15 minutes had elapsed before Saints hit another gear. Kendall was pulling most of the strings, encouraging wide players forward in areas of the pitch that were more playable. She thread a smart ball through to Pharaoh on the move just after the hour mark, who took a touch to settle before firing fiercely at goal. The effort was well struck, but lacked direction, allowing Sansom to save.
Pharaoh followed that move with an excellently struck volley, to keep the pressure on, which was once again rebuffed. The connection was clean, with the technique to match, but Sansom was well positioned to save. Saints were probing, if only the finishing were a little more clinical in nature.
Finally, in the 68th minute, resistance was broken. It was Pusey who got the telling touch, at the second time of asking, as her initial header hung problematically in the air. Sansom attempted to claim the cross from Ella Morris, but wasn't able to fully grasp it before Saints' top scorer snatched it away and poked into the net. Dogged and determined, one goal was all Marieanne Spacey-Cale's side needed to claim what they came for.
MK Dons had provided little threat all game, but Rendell had to be alert in stoppage time to deny a breakaway effort from Kerry Newman. The forward attempted to squeeze a shot beyond Saints' number one at her near post, but was met with determined resistance as Rendell palmed over the crossbar to safety.
Substitute Rood had the chance to end any possible prospect of an MK Dons fightback as she lifted the ball over Sansom late on, before colliding with the goalkeeper, only for her effort to crash off the underside of the woodwork.
Points in the bag, Saints can now turn their attention to a string of home games over the course of the next month - including a standout tie against Bristol City in the Women's FA Cup, which will be staged at St Mary's Stadium.