Gladesville Ravens 1 Northbridge Bulls 0

A terrific finish from Gladesville Ravens top scorer Maya Jones was enough to give her team all three points in an absorbing encounter with league leaders Northbridge Bulls at Christie Park as the NPL Girls Youth League Under 15 Division 2 enters the home straight. The visitors, with an unbelievable 126 goals so far this year, failed to score for the first time this season, thanks to some heroic defending and a dramatic assistant referee’s flag that ruled out an equaliser in a frantic finish. Ravens stay in the hunt for a finals berth with this result, and it could go down to the final day to see if they can dislodge one of the top four teams to extend this bumper season of NPL football.

With Marli Williams and Jas Waters ruled out, Ravens were without two of the stars of last week’s win at Nepean, but they went into this game full of confidence. Northbridge had their powerful central defender Saba Hinton as the pivot to their line-up, wth two livewire forwards in Emily Francis and Arna Hogarth-Scott. The expectation was for a fast flowing game with hard running from the visitors, but they were strangely subdued in a bright opening by the home team. Sophie Steele found space down the right to beat her defender and crossed low to force an early corner, and captain Alessia Rizzuto was seeing a lot of the ball, keeping possession and controlling the tempo of the game. It was Rizzuto’s quick free kick that sent Jones away, but the shot was blocked, before some expert hold-up play from Jones saw her turn sharply and shoot just wide, goalkeeper Jemma Horley watching the ball just past her post.

Tricky right-midfielder Sabine Lozina galloped up the wing to swing in a ball that fell for Hogarth-Scott, but the offside flag denied her a direct route to goal. At the other end, a wild shot by Rizzuto was diverted goalwards by the head of Steele, which almost caught Horley out, and Stef Lakic latched on to a ball from Steele to race through the midfield and shoot from distance, but the shot was straight at Horley, who made the routine save. Hogarth-Scott was then played in and raced into the box, but Ravens’ shot-stopper Chloe McCredie was equal to it, sprinting out to smother the shot. Hogarth-Scott found herself completely unmarked at the far post soon after and rushed the shot, sending the ball high and into the construction site behind, a great chance by her high standards. A fumble by McCredie then saw a corner conceded, and Ravens rode their luck as the ball was played into the area and cleared by Rizzuto.

This finely-poised game was ebbing and flowing, Rizzuto was next to get in a good position, her shot charged down, before Tahlia Butcher’s precision through-ball found Jones, who showed good feet to turn her defender and get the shot in, the ball again not far past the post. A free kick for handball on the Ravens right was swung in by Rizzuto, the ball popping out to Butcher who lofted in a speculative shot that had Horley back-pedalling. The excitement was increasing, Sienna Bell was finding space down the Ravens left and Jackie Rice was full of energy, disrupting the play in a busy midfield. A corner by Jones from the right then landed at the feet of Anika Watson who tried her luck but couldn’t find a way past Hinton. Another free kick after Charlotte Douglas was brought down then saw Rizzuto fire in a shot that Horley saved well.

Hogarth-Scott showed her mesmerising dribbling skills as the half neared its end, swerving past two tackles before being finally closed out by Aurelia Smith. Rizzuto was then penalised for a hand ball, right in front of the referee on the edge of the area, a fantastic position for Northbridge to get a direct shot on goal. The wily Rizzuto saw through the set-piece routine, racing from the wall to block the shot from Hinton before it could trouble McCredie and Ravens survived to go in goalless at the break, a superb game of football playing out for the bumper crowd on this beautiful day.

Despite the warm and sunny conditions of the first half, incredibly the rain started to fall as the second half got underway, a reminder of the unpredictability of this wettest football season on record. Lakic failed to reappear for the Ravens after a head injury sustained at the end of the first period. Saskia Burrough raced into the box right at the start of the half, but shot wildly behind with the goal at her mercy. A good chance fell to Ella Moar for the Ravens soon after, with Horley out of her goal and scuffing a clearance right at the left-winger, but she couldn’t sort out her feet in time to shoot on goal. A brilliant tackle by Watson on Emily Francis then halted a whirlwind attack by the visitors, and a telling free kick from Hinton then tested McCredie, who was fouled in the process of collecting the difficult high ball.

The game then descended into an arm-wrestle, neither side able to hold any meaningful posession, until Douglas picked up the ball inside the Northbridge half and ghosted past her defender only to be crowded out. A mis-placed clearance by Horley was pounced on by Jones, but the bouncing ball fell kindly for the goalkeeper before Douglas could convert. There didn’t seem much on when Angie Le Roux took a throw-in up the right as the Ravens pressed, but a smart turn by Steele took her effortlessly past her defender and she delivered a fantastic cross right on to the toe of the advancing Jones – the sublime finish was straight from the Sam Kerr text book of glorious poacher’s goals, past Horley in a flash, the net bulging to give Ravens the lead. The players raced to congratulate both goalscorer and goal-maker for a sensational moment that gave Ravens the edge and something to hold on to as the second half wore on.

A free kick from Hinton, central and within range, was then smashed wide, and the visitors began to think that this was not going to be their day. When Smith was closed down from a goal kick, Ava Pirozzi was there to make a vital block, and McCredie smothered the danger, but it was Ravens who kept up the pressure. Jones raced up the right with little support, and held the ball up until Rizzuto arrived, the ball played in, but Rizzuto’s unorthodox sweeping effort didn’t connect. Annika Lee was injected into the game to offer a different dimension, and from Rizzuto’s corner soon after, the ball fell perfectly for Steele who rifled in a shot that Horley did well to save; Northbridge had weathered the storm and returned to the offensive. Pirrozi was harshly adjudged to have fouled her player, Hinton lifted in a glorious ball. McCredie climbed highest to claim the ball, but the ball was spilled and an almighty scramble saw the loose ball lashed into the net to huge celebration from the visiting players. The referee’s hand in the air and the inevitable whistle saved the Ravens, an offside call denying the Bulls a dramatic equaliser.

When Smith slipped when controlling a long ball, the Ravens defence was exposed, but Le Roux anticipated and cleared upfield; her ball was expertly held up by Jones, and with Horley committed and out of her goal, the ball just wouldn’t sit for the Ravens striker and she was sent crashing to the floor trying to reach the ball. Worrying signs as she was escorted from the field by the Ravens physio, and with the final substitution having already been made, there was no option but to play out the remainder of the game with ten players. This would be a grandstand finish.

Watson did well to make a tackle to concede a corner, and everyone was up for the final act of the game. The ensuing scramble as the corner was lifted in saw a low shot heading for the bottom corner of the net until Le Roux reached and blocked. McCredie then got her legs to the ball and Le Roux completed the clearance to the relief of the partisan home crowd at Christie Park. That was the last action, and the arms went up as the final whistle sounded, Ravens with a fantastic win and the visiting Northbridge Bulls left shell-shocked after being nudged from top spot in this highly competitive league.

This was a superb advert for women’s football in NSW. The obvious talent on show from the visiting Bulls was, for once, shackled, and the defensive strength, midfield grit and exciting wing play from the home team is making everyone sit up and take notice. With five games remaining of the season, the top four looks set in stone, but with the Ravens in superb form, any slip-up could open the door for a late charge into the finals for the black and whites.

Northbridge look to get back to winning ways at home to bottom team Camden Tigers next weekend, while Gladeville Ravens have their cross-river derby showdown with Inter Lions, one of the most eagerly anticipated clashes of the season. Stay tuned for more exciting Girls Youth League action.

Thanks to Matt and Steve for making this a bumper photo crop. None of us caught the goal though!

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