FA Cup 4th Round: Portsmouth 1 (Hillier) Millwall Lionesses 4 (Billson 3, Blakely OG)
Portsmouth suffered cup agony for the second week running, falling to their second defeat in a row. Yet, if the players respond in the right way, the two setbacks could prove the making of their season.
Almost a year ago Pompey knocked out a team who were about to embark on the Super League adventure that many at Portsmouth felt should have been theirs after the FA introduced a second tier to its élite summer competition based partly on resources and ambition rather than merit.
Their victims, Durham, were still in pre-season and, as a totally new club, were very much an unknown quantity.
The North East side actually finished the inaugural season of FA WSL2 ahead of Pompey’s opponents today, Millwall. Yet the advances made in one season of the league were evident for all to see.
Pompey had more than their share of possession at Cams Alders – much of it decent possession, in positions to hurt their illustrious opponents.
In the likes of Gemma Hillier, Ini Umotong and Jess Frampton, they had players who looked comfortable in the company of Super League players.
They also had the tactical wherewithal to surprise Millwall with their formation, playing three at the back and, for much of the game, up front, too.
What they did not have was the clinical finishing of Lillie Billson, who scored as good a hat-trick as most of us are likely to witness in women’s football this season.
Neither, according to Portsmouth boss Perry Northeast, did they have the experience of having to play with such intensity for a game that, because of injuries, lasted 100 minutes.
Those two deficiencies outweighed the very obvious pluses of considerable talent, immense work rate, admirable commitment and team spirit, not to mention the understanding that comes with being more than halfway through a season in which before last week they had lost just once – plus the confidence that goes with it.
Northeast felt he learned a lot from his players about their ability to cope with incessant pressure – not the type of pressure where a team spend most of the game camped around their own penalty area but the sort of in-your-face approach that means there’s never a moment to dwell on the ball, and where your passing options are reduced with every split second that you dally over your decision making.
And he feels that is the aspect that sets the current WSL2 incumbents apart from the likes of Portsmouth.
What Northeast would have given for a finisher like Billson.
The midfield player was essentially the difference between the two sides, scoring superb long-range strikes with both feet and sandwiching in-between the sort of composed finish that élite footballers tend to produce more often than not.
Pompey’s Hillier hit a screamer of her own that would have vied with any of Billson’s for goal of the game, and Millwall’s fourth – an unlucky ricochet off the post from a fine Frankie Strugnell free-kick, which hit goalkeeper Sadie Blakely and went in – merely rubbed salt in Pompey’s wounds.
It was hard to imagine what was to unfold as the home side got off to an impressive start, penning the visitors – still a couple of weeks away from the start of their second Super League season – in their own half for virtually the whole of the opening 10 minutes.
Portsmouth forced a corner in the first 60 seconds, Hillier having already stretched the Millwall defence down the left and sending over a first-time cross that just eluded Charley Wilson and which Umotong could not bring under control in time.
Then, from Molly Clark’s long free-kick, Chloe Dark seized on Megan Goss’s mistake to fire in a shot, which was blocked.
When Millwall finally did emerge from their own half, it took a superb interception from their former player, Leeta Rutherford, to prevent Strugnell’s free-kick finding Grace Fisk in space inside the Pompey area.
The hosts continued to press, forcing a second corner, from which Wilson fired over.
But then, after 14 minutes, against the run of play, Millwall struck a decisive blow. Sixteen-year-old Rinsola Babajide did superbly under pressure and fed Billson, 30 yards out.
The midfielder beat her marker, moved forward and unleashed a beautiful curling shot beyond Blakely and in off the post.
It was a big setback, but you wouldn’t have noticed from Portsmouth’s response. They went straight back up the other end, where they had spent so much of the game to date, and fashioned a half-chance for Umotong, whose snapshot went straight at Frankie Gibbs in the Millwall goal.
Then Umotong, whose strength and power were giving Millwall’s defenders big problems, played in Dark, who earned Pompey a third corner with the game only 17 minutes old.
Lucy Quinn’s flag-kick was immediately put behind for another on the opposite flank, from where Frampton delivered a superb cross to the near post which Gibbs punched against her own upright, sparking a scramble in the Millwall box before it was finally cleared.
Umotong brilliantly turned Naomi Cole, who brought her down for the latest in a succession of free-kicks, but Pompey could not turn the opportunities into clear-cut chances, and certainly not goals.
And in the 23rd minute they were made to pay a heavy price as Millwall went 2-0 up. Lily Agg, who was impressing in midfield sent a ball over the Portsmouth defence, putting Billson clear. She still had plenty to do as Blakely advanced, but she calmly slotted the ball beyond the keeper to grab her – and her team’s – second goal.
After having enjoyed so much of the game’s opening quarter, the blow of conceding twice to Super League opponents could have caused some teams to fold.
And for a few minutes, they came under their first spell of sustained pressure, defending more and more deeply, and they were indebted to Frampton for a superb tackle on the dangerous Babajide – the first of many in what developed into one of the most enthralling individual battles of the afternoon.
Blakely faced another one-on-one, this time with Babajide, who outpaced Tiff Taylor, but the Pompey goalkeeper stuck out a foot to divert the winger’s effort past the post for Millwall’s first corner, nearly 35 minutes into the contest.
But then, with no reason for caution, Pompey began playing some of their best football of the match.
They won their fifth corner, from which Wilson knocked an effort just wide. And then, six minutes before half-time, they came right back into the match, courtesy of a quite brilliant goal from Hillier.
Quinn cleverly volleyed a cross across the edge of the Millwall box, which Hillier gathered and outfoxed Leanne Cowan in one movement before rifling an unstoppable shot from 20 yards into the top corner to make it 2-1.
As the game approached half-time, Pompey had the momentum and didn’t want the break to come. Quinn, who was coming to life after a difficult start, sprayed a superb ball to the overlapping Frampton, and her cross poleaxed Strugnell, leading to a lengthy delay while the full-back received treatment.
When play resumed, two minutes into stoppage time, Portsmouth very nearly capped their fightback with an equaliser.
Wilson for once found herself with a little space inside the Millwall penalty area and she struck her volley brilliantly, only for Gibbs to parry instinctively at point-blank range – a save that was to prove vital in the context of the match.
Still Pompey pressed, and they had another opportunity to go in level when they won another free-kick in a central position, 25 yards out. But Clark fired her effort just past the post.
Half-time: Portsmouth 1-2 Millwall
Despite the scoreline, the game was quite even, and Pompey were the first to threaten after half-time when Wilson did well to play in Hillier, who sent over a fine cross, which Millwall scrambled clear.
Then Agg and Goss combined well, only to be thwarted by Tiffany Taylor. In the 49th minute Portsmouth brought on Sarah Kempson for Dark, but within a minute they were facing a two-goal deficit again, as Billson unleashed a left-foot crackerjack for a magnificent hat-trick.
Still Pompey refused to be cowed, and Taylor fired in a fierce shot on the turn, which was blocked.
And then, after winning two more free-kicks in quick succession, the home side squandered a great chance to get back in the game, Kempson’s free-kick finding Wilson eight yards out, but she headed wastefully over.
Still Pompey poured forward, and Umotong did brilliantly to shake off no fewer than four players before earning yet another corner.
More good play – between Wilson and Kempson – won another, but as with all those before them, it came to nothing.
Midway through the half there was another long stoppage as Agg was treated for a hip injury, eventually being stretchered off to be replaced by Lily Maple.
On 79 minutes Portsmouth made another change, Eilidh Currie replacing the impressive Frampton, and Millwall brought on Shirvae Edwards for Ciara Sherwood.
It was Pompey’s turn to give away a free-kick, 30 yards out, but Cole drove her effort wide of the post.
Rutherford sent Umotong away with a superb ball out of defence, and the powerful striker, who flies out to join the Nigeria national side’s pre-World Cup training camp on Tuesday, won yet another corner.
The visitors nearly grabbed a fourth when Edwards broke through with Portsmouth’s defenders vainly appealing for offside, but Blakely was down smartly to smother the substitute’s effort.
Portsmouth made their final change on 86 minutes, Shannon Sievwright replacing Quinn as they looked for fresh legs to test the Millwall back line.
But it was the Super League side who finished the stronger, Cole setting up Edwards, who volleyed just wide, and then Rutherford earning herself a booking for hauling back Babajide as she tried to make amends for her own slip.
But the yellow card was nothing compared with the punishment Pompey suffered from the resultant free-kick on 90 minutes.
Strugnell’s powerful effort struck the post and rebounded off Blakely for a fourth goal.
Millwall made their final change two minutes into the six added on for Agg’s injury, Cherelle Albert replacing Babajide, and although Pompey continued to huff and puff, there was to be no miraculous injury-time comeback and Pompey’s hopes of earning another shot at a Super League side disappeared – for this season, at least.
Pompey’s credentials as a would-be Super League team were under the microscope, but after their first defeat in 21 games, against Sheffield in the Premier League Cup semi-final last week, it was their ability to bounce back from a rare setback that interested me.
They showed few signs of any hangover from last week – and indeed, showed immense character at 2-0 down to pull a goal back and come so close to going in level at the break.
It was no shame to lose to a solid Millwall side who, despite still being in pre-season, have a clear idea of how they want to play, with their new players blending well with those already in place.
Dan Mlinar, who took over as manager in November, could not conceal his pleasure at achieving such a good result at such an early stage.
He told Sent Her Forward: “This was a serious game. [Portsmouth] are halfway through their season – they’re having an excellent season, and we’re in our eighth week, so it was a serious test, and I think we came through really well.”
He conceded that Portsmouth had plenty of possession and territorial advantage, but he said: “I felt relatively comfortable at most stages of the game.
“We scored two excellent goals from outside the box, which I don’t think anyone could do much about. But to be fair, [Billson’s] second goal was probably the nicest one because she’s got time to think about it and just passes it into the net. The others are quite instinctive.”
Mlinar believes Pompey’s current side could cope in WSL2. He said: “We had them watched last weekend. We prepared for them to be playing two systems that they played against Sheffield, and they actually played a different system today.
“But I was impressed with them. I thought they were good, they were tough, they were aggressive. They didn’t let us settle. They won a lot of one-v-ones. I thought they were really good.
“They did put us under pressure, but I thought defensively we were very solid.”
While the Millwall boss was a new convert to the growing admirers of Pompey, defender Naomi Cole needed no persuading. The former Lewes and Chelsea player knows many of their players and believes the team is equipped to achieve their Super League dream.
She said: “They gave us a game. We knew we had to fight for the performance today because they are a strong-willed side. But I believe they’ve got a great chance of getting promoted. They just need to stick at what they’re doing.”
Portsmouth boss Perry Northeast reflected the level of expectation within the club when he revealed how disappointed he was that his side had failed to overcome their Super League opponents.
He said: “We could, and should, have got through today. We had large spells of possession, large spells of territory, and nothing came of it. That’s what hurts the most.”
But he admitted: “We weren’t clinical. We didn’t finish when we needed to finish. They did, and fair play.”
Northeast’s frustration is as much that he feels his players need that sort of challenge every week to progress.
“We need to be playing teams like this more often to be more resolute, like they were,” he said. “You learn so much more about the game.”
Northeast identified Millwall’s concentration as a crucial element of their win. “As much as we were pressurising them, they didn’t really switch off. Naomi [Cole] and Dionne [Lennon], accompanied by their full-backs, just didn’t switch off at any point of the game.”
But he insisted his players were not suffering the after-effects of last week’s League Cup defeat to Sheffield. “Even [after] the second goal that went in, they picked the ball out of the net and we go again, because we knew we still had enough time.
“There was no panic, still no blame culture, because we knew the roles. That is why they reacted so well [and pulled a goal back]. We didn’t want half-time to come. Then [Millwall] get one after half-time.”
But he returned to the question of the connundrum facing all teams looking to make the step up.
“We’ll be able to compete in WSL2 if we play more games of this nature, because we were put in situations today of 90 minutes of solid pressure, so there wasn’t a moment when we could switch off.
“I wouldn’t say individual ability is the next level, but I’d say it’s in your head more than what’s on your feet. I’ve learned a lot about us and the team. And we can only get better in that instance if we’re playing sides like this.”
“If only I could have had this sort of fixture in October. Who knows where we’d be now?”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Lillie Billson (Millwall)
Who else could it be after one of the most technically proficient hat-tricks I’ve had the privilege to witness? Superb long-range strikes with right and left feet and a confident finish in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. She also played a crucial role with Lily Agg in the centre of midfield.
Her manager said: “I thought she was the best player on the park. It was a bobbly pitch, but everything that got played into her stuck. She linked the play fantastically and she scored unbelievable goals.”
Frankie Strugnell also impressed, and will no doubt claim the fourth goal, while Rinsola Babajide was a handful for Portsmouth, although Jess Frampton did superbly against her for most of the game, limiting the danger she posed.
Frankie Gibbs, Millwall’s goalkeeper, also played a key role, superbly keeping out Charley Wilson’s volley at 2-1 to deny Portsmouth a potentially game-changing equaliser.
For Pompey, Molly Clark looked comfortable in midfield, while Gemma Hillier looks to be back to her sharp, incisive best, playing in a wider role. And Ini Umotong signed off in her last game before her two-week training camp in Abuja with a performance of pace, power and no little skill.
Her team-mates face another test of their character next Sunday when they host league title rivals Brighton without her.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Plenty of class on show on a difficult pitch and in windy conditions.