Ashridge Park 1 Westwood Wanderers Greens 4
Sponsor Performance Rating*: Bhuna - solid and dependable with much to like
Ashridge Scorer: Antonio Baciu (15', pen)
Star Player: Jack Clayton
(* in recognition of our new shirt sponsor, the Sultan Balti Palace)
New opponents for us this week, with Westwood Wanderers Greens having transferred over from the rapidly-diminishing Berkshire Youth Development League. Whilst we were well-beaten last week, the Greens came into this morning's game on the back of a comfortable 5-1 win over Berks County Pumas, so we suspected that we would have another tough morning ahead. To make matters worse, last week's star player, Jack G, was away, and defensive lynch-pin James Riley was also missing due to a mix-up on the referee scheduling. To compensate, we reverted to a more defensive 4-4-2 formation with Jack C and Marcus dropping into the centre of defence. Dan also arrived in some discomfort, and we elected not to start with him, using Jamie and Will as the central midfield pairing. On the plus side Reg Ryan returned to lead the line.
The opening minutes confirmed our suspicions that we were up against a decent outfit. Westwood's midfield were very comfortable in possession, and played the ball around with some panache, looking for openings. Ashridge had taken on-board some of the lessons from last week, and stayed tight and compact, leaving few spaces for the visitors to exploit. Marcus and Jack were outstanding from the off, with Marcus's sharpness and poise on the ball, complementing Jack's strength and competitiveness extremely well. Communication across the back four and the midfield was good, and Ashridge successfully limited the visitors to some long-range efforts, which Joe dealt with comfortably. The biggest danger looked to be coming from corners, with two dangerous deliveries in the box; but from the first Jack harried well and forced a mis-directed header from the biggest opponent which went wide of the post; whilst from the second we escaped lightly when another tall opponent was being marked by our smallest player, Bertie, but put his header over the bar.
Opportunities for Ashridge to threaten the opposition goal were limited, but Reg, Antonio and Tayseer all worked exceptionally hard, and kept the opposition defence on their toes when they could. On 15 minutes a rare Ashridge raid saw Tayseer play the ball into Reg on the left edge of the box, only for Reg to be flattened by a rash challenge from behind. Spot kick awarded, and dispatched centrally by Antonio though the keeper did get a boot to it, deflecting it high into the back of the net. Ashridge were buoyed by the surprise lead, and started to play with more confidence and authority, and for a while the visitors lost some of their fluency. That said, play remained mostly in the Ashridge half, espcially as Reg had to go off feeling ill for the remainder of the half, meaning that we had less of a presence up-front. As the half drew to a conclusion, the visitors picked up the pace again, first striking the top of the bar with a shot from distance, before finally drawing level when a skilful run from midfield finally found a way through the central defensive shield, with a smart finish following into the bottom right corner. 1-1 at the end of an intriguing half.
The pattern didnt really change in the second half with the visitors dominating possession and Ashridge continuing to defend solidly. Reg was fit to return to the forward line, and on their occasional counters, Ashridge did successfully get a few more players forward into good spaces, with Jamie, Tayseer and Antonio all breaking forward at times, and Tayseer coming close to an Ashridge second after beating two players on the left but firing his shot into the side-netting from a narrow angle. Ashridge held out until just before the mid-point of the half, when a Westwood corner dropped from the first challenge centrally, just outside the six yard box; two Ashridge players both did their best to clear, but facing their own goal, and surrounded by opponents were unable to get much on the ball, which then ricocheted to a Westwood player who stabbed it goalwards; Joe was just unable to claw it away as it found its way just inside the left-hand post.
Ashridge were tiring now, and the midfield line began to fragment a little, meaning that Westwood were finding more opportunities to break with pace, and Ashridge were being forced into more last-gasp clearances. That said, it was Ashridge who came within a whisker of striking next; Reg surging forward down the left flank before cutting back inside, spotting the keeper slightly off his line, and firing an arrow of a shot from the angle of the penalty area across to the opposite top corner, but unfortunately striking the top of the crossbar, denying him a potential goal-of the-season contender. Jack C was beginning to struggle with a long-standing knee problem, and Westwood exploited the gap on the break, the forward breaking past Marcus who just caught the player in the box - whilst the fall was somewhat delayed and dramatic, there was certainly contact, and the penalty a fair decision. This was calmly dispatched to Joe's left, putting the result beyond doubt at 3-1. Jack had to come off, and an already patched up defence became even more so, with Alex filling in at left back whilst Tim moved inside. A fourth seemed likely, and duly arrived in the last few minutes, with another penalty; this time Marcus being adjudged to have levered the striker unfairly off the ball in what had looked like a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. Dispatched once more to the same corner, for a final score of 4-1.
A little disappointing that the late concessions gave the scoreline a more convincing appearance; whilst there's no argument that Westwood were comfortably the better team, the boys worked so hard and defended so well for long periods that they deserved to see a smaller margin of a defeat. Regardless, they can be proud of themselves today, and will have learnt a lot about defending when under pressure; compared to last week's performance, this was several degrees better. Everyone played their part in ensuring we were compact and made the oppostion work hard for their win. Particular callouts for Will, who anchored the central midfield well with solid positioning, and looked much more like his usual self today; for Antonio who showed real desire on his first appearance of the season, and to James Roberts, Marcus and Tim who all got in plenty of great blocks and tackles. A clear winner of the star player recognition was Jack C, he took command of the back line, organising everyone to keep the defensive shape right, he was strong and determined in the challenge, and judged perfectly when to play out with a simple pass and when to use the "Row Z" option. We hope the knee problem is not too serious, as we will need this kind of performance regularly this season in what looks like a strong division!