Ashridge Park 0 Woodley Saints Lions 2
Star Player: Antonio Baciu
Our first meeting for a couple of seasons with familiar opponents, who are on the up again after a season in Division 6, and who had recruited well in the interim. Woodley came into the match at the top of the table having only dropped five points from their fifteen games, and having conceded less than a goal per game. Ashridge had a fairly full squad, missing only Jamie and the unfortunate Jack C who again had to drop out on the morning due to illness. The forecast high winds turned out to be less of an issue than expected, with only the odd gust across the width of the pitch, and so all was set for an interesting contest.
The match quickly settled down into a rhythm that was to persist throughout. The core of the contest was in the central areas, where Dan and Jack G battled gamely, with the former in particular showing great commitment throughout. They had their hands full, however, with the Woodley nos 6 and 10 showing not only great tenacity but a nice touch on the ball, and they were able to get the upper hand and spread play intelligently. The visitors used three main routes to create danger: down the left flank where the number 17 threatened fleetingly, but was well dealt with on the whole by the two Jameses; down the right flank where the number 4 showed an excellent turn of speed and gave Tim problems throughout; and by some raking diagonal balls from the right side of defence seeking out the tall number 8, who fortunately for Ashridge had a tendency to stray offside. It was this last route, though, that came closest to achieving the breakthrough in the first quarter of the match, as the ball eluded James Riley and Marcus, and was headed on the bounce by the number 8 towards the top right hand corner; Joe getting finger-tips on it to push it via the crossbar on to the post before it bounced back into his grateful grasp. Joe was then forced into a further save after a raid down the left freed the number 8 on the angle of the box; whilst a dangerous cross from the right, after the number 4 surged past Bertie and Tim, was well cut out by Marcus, and eventually cleared by Will after a couple of hairy moments in the ensuing scramble.
Whilst Ashridge were defending well, they struggled to make good use of the ball when in possession in the opening half hour, with moves breaking down as the balls forward were hurried and ill-directed, allowing the Woodley defence to pick them off with ease. With Tayseer dropping deep into the midfield battle, Reg was increasingly isolated and outnumbered up-front, and struggled to get clear opportunities. At the mid-point of the half Ashridge did finally manage a move down the left flank which allowed Reg to sprint in behind the Woodley back line only to be denied by a great recovery challenge as he cut inside to make the shooting chance. On 25 minutes Antonio replaced Tayseer with a brief to get further forward to support Reg, and the impact was almost immediate as he skipped past a challenge on half way, laid the ball off to Reg, who slipped a well-weighted return ball behind the defence, allowing Antonio to break into the box, hold off the challenge and offload the shot, which unfortunately missed the target. A good spell followed for Ashridge, and Dan was bundled over on the left edge of the box; Antonio took the free-kick but didn't get the connection right, allowing the keeper to make a straightforward save. As is often the way, this spell ended with Woodley finally grabbing the lead on 35 minutes; an attack down the left flank saw a well-flighted ball into the middle, the number 8 stooping to get a head on it ahead of the Ashridge back line, the ball bouncing down into the ground almost at the striker's feet and looping up to elude Joe and end up in the back of the net. The visitors then had the chance to double the lead before the half time as the referee belatedly blew for some infringement (which this reporter and apparently most of the players missed) centrally on the edge of the box, but the Ashridge wall did its job and blocked the effort from the free-kick. Just the single goal in it at half-time despite the visitors' dominance.
Not much was to change in the second period, as Ashridge found themselves penned back in their own half for significant periods. That said, the defence dealt somewhat more effectively with the threats on the flanks (the Woodley wide men having swapped wings at half-time), and the midfield managed to restrict the spaces better so that the diagonal balls that had caused so much trouble in the first half were not so easily delivered. Accordingly, there were fewer chances of note until Woodley extended the lead on 57 minutes; a move started on the left flank with a driving run that saw the ball taken past two covering players to within 5 yards of the bye-line, then the ball squared in to the middle was half-cut out before squirming loose from the ensuing challenge to the right angle of the box, where the Woodley no 10 found himself with time and space to shape a first-time shot expertly into the top left-hand corner. From two goals behind, Ashridge rarely looked like getting back into the game, though from the scraps of possession they had they did manage to mount some threat on the Woodley goal: first Reg looked like rounding the defence on the right of the box but was denied by a goal-saving challenge; then Ashridge's best moment saw Antonio escape from his man on the right, before driving centrally towards the box and sliding an excellent pass between the two defenders to put Reg in on goal, Reg's shot drawing a fine save from the keeper who dived low to his right to push the ball around the post. Woodley looked like adding a third when the number 8 showed deceptive pace to break clear on the right, but his shot was too close to Joe who managed to gather safely. At the other end Jack G had a snap shot well saved high to the right of the goal, whilst Bertie also out a shot just wide from the edge of the box; but these were half-chances at best, and Woodley saw the game out comfortably.
No complaints at all about the result; Woodley were clearly the better of the two sides, and it was easy to see why they are top of the division. No complaints either about the effort put in by the home side, they defended well and kept going until the final whistle; just a little bit more quality needed on the pass in order to unlock a well-organised opposition. Mentions for the whole of the back four who got in many timely challenges, and behind them Joe made 2 or 3 key saves this week. The midfield worked hard, but none more so than Dan, whose competitive edge was clear to see; and whilst Reg had a fruitless task today, he too put in a good shift. Today's star player award goes to Antonio, who showed some fine quality on the ball and made a real difference when he came on, providing some linkage from midfield to attack. He was fundamentally involved in our best moments going forward, with the pass to set up Reg's chance in the second half being right out of the top drawer.