Southampton FC Women saw their unbeaten league run come to an end, following a 2-0 defeat to league leaders Ipswich Town at Snows Stadium on Sunday.
The first half was fiercely contested, but it was Ipswich who opened the scoring, Natasha Thomas rising highest to head home Abbie Lafayette’s free-kick from the right in the 41st minute.
Saints created more chances in the second period and were unfortunate not to equalise, but Zoe Barratt’s strike ensured the Tractor Girls returned home 2-0 victors and inflicted a first defeat of the season on Marieanne Spacey-Cale's side.
Although both teams hadn’t dropped a point in the league prior to kick-off, Southampton began the match six points behind their visitors, having played two less games.
As to be expected, with the game of such high importance for both sides, the opening stages of the encounter were cagey, with both teams trying to assert their dominance, especially in midfield.
The in-form Lucia Kendall would enjoy the first half-chance, skipping her way past several Ipswich challenges and into the box on seven minutes, but the eventual shooting opportunity would present from a tight angle, allowing stopper Sarah Quantrill to block the 17-year-old’s low effort with ease.
In response, the visitors would soon carve a chance of their own, Barratt latching onto a long ball from defence that would travel beyond the backline, but Kayla Rendell was out quickly to bravely deny the shooting opportunity before Shelly Provan cleared the loose ball to safety on 15 minutes.
With both teams growing in confidence as the minutes ticked by, the game was becoming more and more open, in similar fashion to that of the fixture a fortnight ago, where Southampton progressed in the National League Cup following a 1-0 victory over Ipswich.
Having clearly built on their prior performance, however, Joe Sheehan’s side would soon create another opening. Paige Peake crossing from deep into the advancing Barratt, but the striker could only glance her header wide of Rendell’s right post.
With each opportunity that came, it was clear that Ipswich were growing in momentum and four minutes before halftime this proved telling, Lafayette floating in an angled ball from a free-kick which was met by Thomas, who did well to rise above her marker and nod home from close proximity. The first goal the hosts have conceded in the league since the opening day of the season.
Understandably, Spacey-Cale's side were struggling to find their usual rhythm against a side as well drilled as Ipswich, but the fantastic 900-strong support at Snows Stadium helped to drive the team forward, as Saints finished the half strongly and looked to build in the second.
Returning for the second period, Southampton looked to inflict more pressure on their visitors net, while the visitors prepared to weather the impending storm.
The introduction of attacking-midfielder Sophia Pharoah would help, as Saints quickly created an opportunity to equalise. Ella Morris crossing toward the far post where Provan stooped low to head back across goal, but a fingertip save from Quantrill would deny her.
On the hour mark, Ipswich would replace goal scorer Thomas with number nine Maddie Biggs, a change which quickly bared fruit for the visitors. Biggs stretching to turn a long free-kick from deep back across goal, which the alert Barratt powered in off the underside of the crossbar on 61 minutes, increasing the away advantage to two. A shock second, given Saints’ quick start.
This was a situation foreign to Spacey-Cale’s side, who up until this point had not been behind all season, but Southampton showed resolve and continued attacking in search of a much needed first goal.
A token for their offensive efforts, Saints enjoyed a flurry of corners between the 70th and 75th minutes, the last of which was an in-swinger, bent toward the far post by Kendall and would have been goal-bound if it wasn’t for Lucy Egan’s last gasp header off the line to spare her flailing goalkeeper's blushes.
Spurred on by the supporting noise, the hosts kept attacking and began to find some joy through substitute Mott in the dying embers, the 17-year-old crossing from a deep position on the right wing toward the head of fellow substitute Alisha Ware, but the winger was unable to guide her effort goalward.
This had been by far the most difficult league encounter Spacey-Cale’s side had faced so far this campaign, and Ipswich demonstrated further footballing maturity to see out the final few minutes of the game unscathed.