Southampton FC Women suffered their first defeat in five matches at the hands of WSL outfit Reading, who showed their class during a 3-0 Continental Cup victory at St Mary’s Stadium.
The first half proved a difficult one for Southampton, who quickly fell behind to Sanne Troelsgaard’s strike after five minutes before Lauren Wade added a second shortly before the interval.
Despite a positive start to the second period, Southampton were undone once more on the hour mark as Justine Vanhaevermaet stole in to smash home at the near post following a free-kick, increasing the away advantage to three.
Granted a brief break from league duty, Marieanne Spacey-Cale took the opportunity to rotate her side against Reading, bringing in Sophie Harris, Laura Rafferty, Georgie Freeland, Phoebe Williams, Megan Wynne, Ashleigh Ward, Lexi Lloyd-Smith, Alice Griffiths and Ciara Watling from the start.
With both sides defeated in their most recent Continental Cup outing, a chilly afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium provided an opportunity for redemption in the competition.
Reading looked confident in the early stages, keeping possession well, albeit mostly in their own half while Saints sat in patiently and looked to grow into the game.
Considering the Women’s Super League status of their opposition, the home side will have been prepared for a tough battle from the first whistle, but their task was made even more difficult after just five minutes.
Reading’s opener came courtesy of Sanne Troelsgaard, who was allowed far too much time to receive and turn with the ball inside the home penalty area, subsequently blasting her right-footed effort into the roof of Harris’s net.
A very disappointing start for Saints and one they may well feel could have been avoided through some tighter marking. Nevertheless, 85 minutes remained for Spacey-Cale’s side to muster a response.
With that in mind, the minutes between six and 20 were much more positive from those in red and white, who were beginning to string together some intricate passing moves and get up-field on a more regular basis. Although, Reading’s substantial pace out wide continued to pose a considerable threat on the counter-attack.
That was something made evidently clear after 22 minutes, when captain Emma Mukandi jetted her way down the left flank, whipping in a low cross toward the arriving Troelsgaard who, if she were able to get a touch, would have grabbed her second of the day.
Within moments of almost conceding again, Southampton launched arguably their most threatening attack of the game up the other end, a delicate through ball from midfield matched perfectly with the darting run of Wynne, but the Wales international was narrowly beaten to the ball by the outrushing Jacqueline Burns, who did well to stem the move on 23 minutes.
Not a minute later and Reading’s goalkeeper was called into action once more, Griffiths trying her luck from range this time with a fierce right-footed strike that may well have found the bottom corner should Burns not have intervened with a diving stop.
After a fairly tranquil start, this game was quickly growing into an end-to-end contest, with either team looking accomplished in attack, but less so in defence.
Alongside her goalkeeper, another player who had been impressive for the away side thus far was Wade, so it came as no huge shock when the attacker added her name to the scoresheet after 38 minutes.
An arcing ball from midfield was enough to unlock the Southampton defence, propelled perfectly into the number 11’s path and granting her time and space to pick her spot beneath the body of Harris.
Two goals adrift, half-time was timely for Southampton, who needed to re-group and re-evaluate ahead of the second 45.
Somewhat surprisingly, the only change ahead of the latter period was made by the Reading camp, Charlie Wellings replacing Emma Harries as Saints decided to stick to their guns.
That was a decision that proved to be fairly fruitful as the game grew toward the 60th minute, Spacey-Cale’s side enjoying good possession as they looked to halve their deficit. However, Reading continued to be the more clinical when it came to chance taking.
Their third of the game came precisely on the hour. A free-kick, right of goal, was whipped into Saints’ box with pace and direction and, via a hefty deflection, fortuitously found its way onto the right-boot of Vanhaevermaet, who made no mistake in powering home at the near post.
The result now seemed certain, however Saints showed real heart to continually press and hassle their opponents in the hope of a dramatic comeback. Impressive, especially when many other teams would have just accepted defeat.
Griffiths needed to be alert as the clock ticked beyond 70, a towering Reading header at the near post following a corner on course to loop over Harris and make in 4-0, but the midfielder was well-positioned behind her goalkeeper to head off the line.
So too was Paige Peake, who, just like her teammate 14 minutes earlier, showed instinct and awareness to get back on the line and block the blast of Wellings from close proximity, whose effort went within inches of further extending Reading’s lead in the dying embers.