Lewes 0 Portsmouth 3 (Hillier 2, Umotong)
Lewes have a reputation as a friendly club, but they slightly overdid the welcoming bit when they rolled out a carpet of a pitch at the Dripping Pan, and then proceeded to let Portsmouth play all over it.
Pompey’s eager, highly motivated players accepted their hosts’ generosity to cruise to a comfortable 3-0 win that puts them back on top of the Premier League.
They could almost have been playing in carpet slippers at times, such was the amount of time they were afforded all too often in a match the visitors were determined to win following their under-par showing at Spurs on Sunday.
It wasn’t that Lewes lacked in effort – something their manager, John Donoghue, was keen to point out afterwards. But all too often they were second to the ball – and second to the second ball, too… something he also acknowledged.
The effervescent Kirstie Spice and Catherine O’Hagan, Kelly Newton and Rachel Palmer apart, the home side lacked the intensity to live with the table-toppers – although in reality, they were still in with a shout until the last 20 minutes.
An unfortunate mix-up between goalkeeper Michelle Beazley and defender Hayley West gifted Gemma Hillier her second goal of the night, just as Lewes looked to have weathered the second-half storm.
From that point there was only ever going to be one winner – and Pompey confirmed the three points in emphatic style with an opportunistic third from substitute Ini Umotong.
Hillier, Pompey’s captain, may have dealt the critical blows, with a goal in each half, and some fine link-up play, but it was Charley Wilson who wore Lewes down with an energetic display up front, full of pace, power and trickery, giving Rebecca Thompson in particular a torrid first 45 minutes.
In a tentative start to what was frankly a forgettable first half, Lewes twice carved out impressive openings, with Kirstie Spice delivering tempting crosses, but in what was to become a feature of the home side’s play, there was no red shirt anywhere near the ball as it flashed across goal.
Lewes had a better chance on 14 minutes when Katie McIntyre’s corner hit Newton on the shins virtually on the goal line, but the ball dropped agonisingly short of the goal.
And within seconds, Pompey were ahead. In a slick counter-attack, the visitors swept the ball from their own area to Lewes’s, where Hillier, in acres of space, collected Wilson’s astute through-ball and coolly slotted past Beazley for the opener.
The goal seemed to suck the life out of Lewes, who were constantly troubled by Wilson’s pace and affording the dangerous Lucy Quinn far too much space on the right touchline.
Every so often, the home team would spring into life and thread together two or three neat passes, usually featuring Palmer, Charlotte Bennett and Spice or Catherine O’Hagan.
But in what was becoming a familiar story, the moves would peter out through lack of numbers or a misplaced final ball.
Portsmouth’s attacks, by contrast, generally looked more threatening, and Quinn should have done better when she found herself with only Beazley to beat, but the ‘keeper stood tall and Quinn was not up to the challenge.
Lewes had a chance to equalise a couple of minutes later after an excellent run from defence by McIntyre. As she went to pull the trigger, a Pompey boot deflected it for a corner, from which the ball fell at the feet of Spice, but she could not dig it out in time and Sadie Blakely pounced on it to prevent a certain goal.
Pompey deserved their first-half lead, yet Lewes were still in the match. But they needed to find a way of containing the real threat of Wilson up front and Quinn, who had failed to make the most of the space she had been afforded on the right.
And no sooner had the second half begun than Quinn underlined the point, skipping past two challenges on the flank and directing a fine low cross which was just behind the on-rushing Wilson.
Chance of instant glory
The centre-forward should have done better a few minutes later when she raced on to another fine through-ball, but her under-powered shot was easily saved by Beazley.
Lewes brought on Chloe Howe for Bennett, who after a bright start had struggled to get the better of Jess Frampton on the left wing.
At the same time, Portsmouth brought on Ini Umotong, the former Aston Villa striker, for Shannon Sievewright.
The powerful substitute had a chance of instant glory when she ran on to another through-ball, but Katie Baker thwarted her with a superbly timed tackle.
Ironically, while Quinn was becoming more of a threat with her pace and direct running, Thompson was beginning to get the measure of Wilson, denying her the opportunity to perform so many of her trademark turns.
Pompey were shooting almost at will, but few of their efforts troubled Beazley. Umotong and Hillier played a couple of neat one-twos, but from the first, the Pompey captain was crowded out and from the second, Umotong was foiled by West’s neat interception.
On 70 minutes, Pompey made their second change, as Molly Clark replaced Chloe Dark.
Within a minute, Pompey had extended their lead. Just as Lewes looked to be riding out the storm, Beazley and West distracted each other as the goalkeeper came out to collect and Hillier took advantage to slot into an empty net.
The goal was a devastating – and fatal – blow for Lewes.
Clark began to run midfield, spraying inch-perfect crossfield balls to both flanks.
Lewes looked to be tiring as they tried to chase the game, and it was a surprise that Donoghue did not introduce fresh blood.
Clare Trafford came on only after Pompey had scored their third, in the 78th minute, Umotong pouncing after a scramble in the box to score her first competitive goal for the club.
It was nearly four just seconds later when Hillier intercepted straight from the kick-off and forced a corner, from which Umotong’s powerful header was blocked. Hillier shot on the turn, only to be denied by a superb point-blank stop by Beazley.
Three minutes later, Wilson almost got the goal she deserved when she blasted an angled pile-driver from the corner of the area, which rapped the angle of bar and post and ended up somewhere in West Sussex.
Beazley again came to Lewes’s rescue as Pompey turned the screw. Wilson played substitute Ellie Bloomfield in, but the midfielder was no match for the ‘keeper.
With time running out, Lewes finally found their voice. Sian Heather fired a snapshot from the edge of the Pompey box, which was clawed away by Blakely at full stretch.
And the ‘keeper was forced to work hard again seconds later, getting down well to keep out Spice’s effort.
Full of confidence, full of running and with a growing understanding of each other’s game, Portsmouth are proving a formidable side, with just one league defeat all season.
However, they never had to be at their best to see off a limited Lewes challenge, which featured some excellent passing moves but little end-product.
Manager John Donoghue acknowledged his side’s shortcomings but was keen to put them into perspective.
He told Sent Her Forward: “Portsmouth were better than us today. I don’t want to concede three goals at home.
“But I wouldn’t say there was a huge difference in ability. They were sharper on the ball, sharper off the ball and better in both penalty areas.
“But we are going to grow and get better. If you are not 100% against the top team you are going to get punished.”
Donoghue praised his players’ “bravery” in possession, insisting on playing the ball out from the goalkeeper. “I don’t believe in shelling the ball out and chasing after it. We are always going to try to play.”
The manager refused to blame tired legs after Lewes’s 2-2 draw at Plymouth on Sunday. “The players are fit and strong,” he insisted. “It’s just the anticipation (that was missing).”
Perry Northeast was understandably delighted to see his team back on top of the Premier League, and to get back to winning ways after their draw at Spurs on Sunday.
“It was quite nice to get something out of the Spurs game because there were a few real, distinct problems on Sunday,” he said. “We had to address them quickly, so it was good to have this game so soon afterwards.”
He said he was happy to leave the Dripping Pan with three points. “I call it a cauldron because this crowd are on your toes and give you stick,” he added. “But that’s a good thing.”
He was particularly pleased that Umotong, who impressed in an unexpected left-midfield role, was rewarded with a goal. “This is the third game in a row for Ini, and she has contributed something in each of those games.
“Tonight she got a goal. She is a striker, but we saw a gap (on the left flank) where she could have a bit more impact. But I don’t want her to be just an impact player. She is definitely an option up front for us now.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Charley Wilson (Portsmouth)
Gemma Hillier showed her sharpness and coolness with a fine all-round performance, but it was Wilson’s pace, power and technique that unnerved Lewes.
Not only did she set up Hillier’s first goal but she could have had one of her own near the end when her fine shot hit the woodwork.
Lucy Quinn caused Lewes plenty of problems, particularly in the second half, and it is surely only a matter of time before she bags a hatful against someone.
Substitute Molly Clark played superbly as the midfield playmaker when she came on for the last 20 minutes, with the game all but won, and fellow substitute Ini Umotong played a disciplined role on the left, doing her share of chasing back as well as threatening at the other end.
Lewes’s best work came from the non-stop Kirstie Spice, but most of her team-mates shone only sporadically. Michelle Beazley certainly saved her side from a bigger defeat, but she will be unhappy about the mix-up that led to Hillier’s second goal.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 There was little to excite the crowd of 81 in the first half, and although both sides improved in the second, it was limited as a contest. Not that Portsmouth will mind too much as they sit three points clear at the top of the table.