By James Reid
It took penalties to separate Durham from Super League opponents Aston Villa as the Continental Cup group stage came to an end.
Ultimately, it was the Super League side that took the bonus point, winning 4-2 on penalties after the sides were tied at 1-1 after 90 minutes. However, the current Championship leaders more than matched their opponents and will feel aggrieved not to have taken all three points.
It was the home side which made a blistering start, opening the scoring just four minutes in. Emily Roberts’ cross looped in over the top of Sian Rogers in goal after good work down the right from the imperious Ellie Christon.
Post-match, Roberts freely admitted that it was a cross, rather than a shot, but it was no less than the Wildcats deserved. The opening 20 minutes were thoroughly dominated by Durham, with Villa struggling to navigate the high press.
Manager Lee Sanders set his side up in a three at the back formation, which worked to good effect in the early stages. Portuguese international Diana Silva at times looked sorely isolated against the fearsome backline of Sarah Wilson, Sarah Robson, and Kathryn Hill.
Despite the early goal, Durham continued to create a number of half-chances with Mollie Lambert twice testing Rogers from the edge of the box, while Christon shot just wide after excellent work from Lauren Briggs and Bridget Galloway to cut the Villa defence open.
It looked to be 2-0 after Beth Hepple broke the defensive line only for her shot to strike the post.
Having weathered the early storm, Gemma Davies’ side began to grow into the game. The Durham press began to be beaten towards the end of the half. Villa’s numerical superiority in midfield began to tell too, and it took a last-ditch challenge from Sarah Robson and a smart save from Megan Borthwick tipping a deflected shot over the bar to ensure Durham went into the break ahead.
Villa started the match with a rotated side, but there was no doubt that they were here to win. Manager Davies made two subs at half-time, with Danish international Stine Larsen and club captain Marisa Ewers entering the fray.
The second half proved a more even affair, with both sides battling hard and creating chances. Before the game, the likelihood was that both teams would progress through to the next round, though neither set of players were treating the match like a dead rubber.
Indeed, there was perhaps a hint of fortune about the fact that the likes of Diana Silva and Mollie Lambert escaped a caution in what was a notably feisty encounter at times. Both sides put in a number of robust challenges that the referee was willing to let go.
It was somewhat surprising, then, when the Villains were awarded a penalty for seemingly very little in the 65th minute. Justice was perhaps served then when Megan Borthwick superbly saved down low to her right to deny Stine Larsen from the spot.
However, the visitors were not to be denied. Less than 10 minutes later, Emma Follis stepped up to convert a free-kick for the edge of the box amidst more than valid Durham complaints about the award of the foul.
The final fifteen minutes became increasingly stretched as both sides searched for a winner. Durham looked the more likely to score as they repeatedly stole the ball high from a tired Villa backline.
The best chance fell to Molly Sharpe who was denied one-on-one by Rogers after being released by Lambert. A winner would have been a fine reward for the excellent performances of both Durham players.
It was not to be, however, and it would be penalties that would decide who topped the group. Both Hepple and Lambert were denied superbly by Rogers, who spared the blushes of Follis who skied her penalty high and wide, to give the Midlands side the bonus point.
Despite the minor disappointment of the shootout, the night was an overwhelmingly positive one for Durham who showed that they could more than match their Super League opponents.
Speaking to Palatinate after the game, forward Emily Roberts said, “It just gives you that boost to know that you can compete with a good standard of football. It gives us a lot of positives going into the league.”
It is the league that will undoubtedly be the focus for Durham, as they currently sit top of the Championship. Performances like tonight go some way to suggesting that they are perhaps ready to make the step up.
Durham XI: Borthwick; Wilson, Robson (Lee, 70′), Hill; Christon (Ayre, 85’), Lambert, Hepple, Briggs; Sharpe, Roberts (Crosthwaite, 79′), Galloway (Brown, 85’)
Subs not used: Mackain, Greenwood
Image: George Ledger/Durham Women FC