26th March 2022: A disastrous start for the Aztecs as Birmingham punish Southampton.
Divina Alo Ilolo returned to the squad after surgery being delayed, and Kath Heath was back in too. Charlotte Broughton dropped out, being the only changes from the recent Helvecia game two weeks ago. Kayleigh Tonks had been unwell, and made it to the game. Molly Sumner is still a little while away from returning to contention. The team was looking forward to competing against a strong Birmingham side, with realistic ambitions of winning the title.
Underdogs again, having lost to Birmingham 6-0 in the South. Even though Birmingham finished second and the Aztecs third, this is a solid team with some star players who have been around the block for a long time. In each game this season, Birmingham had raced to an early lead, and Southampton are sadly notorious for lacklustre starts. What was to happen when the two came together?
A strong team, lots of time to prepare following a hotel stay the night before, the Aztecs embody the levels of commitment required to compete on the national stage. A big time commitment and a lot of travel are the price you pay to play on the big stage and compete against the best. If young players want to follow in the footsteps of the excellent men and women that are given this great platform by the league and BT Sport, 100% effort is a necessity.
A sadly typically terrible start for the Aztecs, conceding only thirty-seven seconds into the game. Lauren Sayler threw out the goal clearance, which was brought down by Birmingham's Laura Smith, and passed off to Alisha Miller. Miller sprinted down the left wing with the ball, unchallenged by the Southampton defence, and laid the ball across goal for Laura Smith to tap in at the far post, who entered the D untracked.
One could be forgiven for thinking this was the customary wake-up call that Southampton needed. The proverbial kick up the backside to get them into gear, but this was not the case today, as it went from bad to worse for the greens. Fifty seconds into the game and the ball was in the net again. Alisha Miller scoring from distance following a wasted free-kick from Southampton. With Sayler supporting the attack, the carelessness in possession coupled with a slow reaction to the transition, allowed Birmingham to score their second of the game inside the first minute, with the debate now being which of the goals were sloppier.
Visibly shellshocked, how would Southampton get back into this? Keeping things tight defensively, allowing Birmingham the ball, drawing them out, and trying to break and hit them on the counter was clearly a plan that would not work at this point. Bekah Tonks did get Southampton's first chance of the game, ninety seconds in, by stealing the ball and breaking quickly, forcing a routine save from Caboz. Thirty seconds later, and Nicola Curtis was played through on goal by Rebecca Moody, but Caboz got down well quickly to prevent Curtis getting the shot away. Maybe this was a sign of the Aztecs waking up?
It wasn't until four minutes in that Birmingham actually created a chance themselves, such was the initial woeful Southampton defending. Morley played a diagonal looping ball to Miller to volley from close range, forcing a good reaction save from Sayler. This was, however, indicative of what was to come next. Caboz clipped a great ball over the Southampton defence for Highway who had snuck in behind, and took it down beautifully on the chest, sent Kayleigh Tonks the wrong way, and then smashed it in from close range to make it 3-0 with just a shade under five minutes played.
It was all going so horribly wrong, which was in such stark contrast to how well it went before kick off. Sport can be funny like that sometimes. So now what? How do you come back from 3-0 down in the first five minutes against second place? Whatever it was, it would require unrelenting effort and belief.
Scoring opportunities for Birmingham were limited now. Southampton showed more resolute defending, making several blocks and important tackles. The defensive shape moved more quickly, and important space was denied. Rebecca Moody came close to scoring when Amy Maidment played her a pass, and Moody performed the most elegant turn to create space and get a shot away, that was saved well by Caboz. Southampton had the next big chance too, when Laura Ingram stole the ball and fed Kayleigh Tonks, who got another save from Caboz from close range.
With nine minutes played, Southampton called a timeout. The choice was to press higher, attempting to pin Birmingham back and engage them closer to their goal. Divina Alo Ilolo was brought into the game and had an immediate impact, receiving Laura Ingram's kick-in inside the Birmingham D, only to be awarded with another close range Caboz save.
Birmingham still hadn't created a significant scoring opportunity since the third goal, and Southampton were now looking like the team we know they can be. Kath Heath came in and linked with Alo Ilolo and Kayleigh Tonks, only to create another save from Caboz. At exactly the mid-point of the half, Alo Ilolo pressed well, stole the ball, but hit a shot agonisingly wide. Southampton were in the ascendency, which made the first five minutes even harder to stomach.
And then it happened. A real sucker punch. 3-0 down, but now battling hard, growing in confidence, creating scoring chances, the cruel sporting gods decided to strike. Southampton did well to distinguish and attack, as Kayleigh Tonks calmly stepped in and played back to Lauren Sayler. The Aztecs players pushed up, Birmingham dropped off, and Sayler played to Ingram in space on the Southampton left. Under relatively low pressure, Ingram's foot got caught, and she tripped on the ball. Every athlete has been there, and even though every competitor will be able to deeply empathise with the situation, that never helps with the pain in the moment. Angelique Morley took the loose ball, made Lauren Sayler commit, and then floated the ball over her into the net. Even Kayleigh Tonks' last second attempt to make a flying save on the line couldn't prevent this cruel goal (albeit a shot that provoked memories of Messi chipping Neuer while the desperate Bayern defenders tried in vain to stop the ball).
Southampton finally got on the scoresheet, with seven and a half minutes remaining in the half. The familiar story of Lauren Sayler arrowing a ball to one of the Tonks sisters. This throw was sent over the head of Miller, brought down by Rebekah Tonks, and fired into the net. Maybe a comeback wasn't on the cards, but this is a team that would go down swinging. While Southampton kept going, trying to claw back more chances and turn this into a competitive game, they opened up at the back and were susceptible to Birmingham counters. One such counter saw Kath Heath recover well to clear the ball, preventing a Birmingham 2v1versus Sayler. Heath then made another important block to keep the score at 4-1. And then a third block to prevent the ball being tapped in at the second post for a certain goal.
The game was now more end to end. Birmingham having a couple good chances, forcing a save from Sayler, and being awarded more and more corners. With only three minutes remaining, it looked more positive for Southampton, and 4-1 didn't feel bad. 4-1 at half-time would have been tolerable considering how bad the opening five minutes were. Then with two minutes to go, Birmingham called a time out. About twenty seconds later, the ball was in the net to make it 5-1, and another goal that was hard to take. Highway cut open the Aztecs defence with a diagonal ball along the ground to the edge of the D, finding Marianne Lennon, whose mishit shot found its way into the net. A Southampton mist-kick results in a Birmingham goal, and a Birmingham mis-kick results in a Birmingham goal. That felt like being kicked while already down.
Then worse went to even worse, when Birmingham took advantage of an Aztecs defence in disarray to make it 6-1 with only forty seconds remaining. Smith had the ball centrally, the Southampton defence were at sixes and sevens, Smith played right to Highway, who fed the ball across the D to Lennon, who entered the Southampton box with little resistance. A half to forget.
When it's not your day, what can you do? Run and hide? Grin and bear it? Or face it head on and give it everything you've got? As a new team, Southampton aren't known for winning much yet, but have a growing reputation as the team that doesn't give up. This is a team that will fight to the bitter end. They will never give up, no matter how easy it might be to do so. Maybe we can't beat them for skill yet, but we can certainly match, and even excel every team in this leave for fight, desire, determination, resilience, and perseverance.
It's important to move on quickly. Do not dwell on the errors, but focus on what is to come next. There were twenty minutes to restore some pride. With thousands watching at home, and people paying attention from around the globe, now is not the time to roll over and die. As they say; forget the mistake, but remember the lesson.
Southampton went for a change in strategy. Immediately, this became a game where sitting deep and trying to nick a goal on the break would not be a viable strategy when Birmingham stormed to that early lead. This was not a close affair that could be won by the odd goal. So now what? Claw back some pride, show what we're made of, and put up a fight. This required an all out, full court, high press. They may beat us, but it won't be easy, and it won't be comfortable. Give them no time on the court, get in their faces, and stick to them everywhere they go. And with that, more frequent, rolling subs needed to be utilised to maintain the high energy levels required to sustain such a tactic.
Battered and bruised, Southampton came out determined not to cede even an inch to their opponents. They pressed, they ran, they grappled, and they fought. Neither team was really able to make a substantial sequence of passing, and no player was given much time on the ball.
The first chance of the half was ninety seconds in and fell to Birmingham. Moody's switch of play to the flying Sayler was cut out, and Smith's shot from distance came back off the post, although Southampton had faith in the ball being blocked by Ingram had it been on target. Shortly after, Sayler came up again to have a shot from distance herself from a Southampton free-kick.
Clear scoring opportunities were few and far between. Both teams resorting to snatching at shots and hitting speculative efforts from distance. The game had a very different feel to the first half. Alisha Miller came close after five minutes, forcing a foot save from Sayler, resulting in a corner. Sayler produced another save when Smith stole the ball and tried to lob her from her own half, only for Sayler to stretch and tip it wide. The American showed even more of her shot-stopping ability after saving well from Lyndsey Glover from close range down to her left, and moments later saving with her feet from Smith.
But as has been seen, a high risk strategy is just that. If not executed well, the better teams will take advantage, and the better players will punish. Following a Southampton kick-in in the Birmingham half, the Southampton movement was slow, but the Miller press was fast, dispossessing Sayler, and running the ball into the empty net for 7-1. It was, however, a more encouraging eight minutes and a much more positive start to the half for the Aztecs.
Southampton continued hassling, pressing, chasing, fighting. The score may have seemed like a walk in the park, but the greens were determined to make it anything but. Laura Ingram had Southampton's first big chance nine minutes into the half, being laid off by Kayleigh Tonks, going past the defender, and having a left footed shot saved by Caboz. But then Southampton were punished once again from the resulting corner. The routine was poorly executed, players had over committed, and the corner fell to Alisha Miller who turned on the after burners to sprint with the ball to the Southampton goal and fire past Sayler to make it 8-1. No mercy from Birmingham was being shown, which is the way it should be.
8-1 down with ten minutes remaining, it's understandable why the pundits were expecting double figures. Plenty of teams would capitulate in this situation. Most Southampton players don't know the meaning of the word, and several would struggle to spell it. Southampton called another time out, simply to reiterate the key points, maintain confidence, and give a slight recharge of the batteries.
The game became so end to end with a back and forth to rival a tennis game. Divina Alo Ilolo was getting involved at both ends, throwing herself into tackles, and forcing Birmingham to commit to blocks and saves at the other end, with Caboz coming up strong yet again. And then it came. Six minutes remaining, and a little more pride was restored. The Southampton pressing forced a Birmingham mistake. Kath Heath took the kick-in to Laura Ingram, who attempted a one-two with Bekah Tonks. Bekah's pass was blocked by Morley by came back to her, who then fired home past Caboz, giving the shot the extra venom that was required to beat such a top keeper, who was having a very good performance.
R. Tonks nearly scored again, but was prevented from a great sliding block by Highway. And then it could have been another. Sayler carried the ball to the halfway line, passed forward to Rebekah Tonks, who popped it off to sister Kayleigh, who sent the ball across goal to Alo Ilolo, who unfortunately sent the ball over the bar from close range. It would otherwise have been a goal of the season contender. Kayleigh Tonks nearly got the third for Southampton, but her shot was tipped past the post for the corner.
The Tonks sisters decided to combine for the corner. Rebekah Tonks then displayed some pure magic, as she weaved between three Birmingham defenders, and poked the ball past Caboz to make it 8-3. This was more like it.
Birmingham did round-off the scoring, Smith passing to Glover to make it 9-3 with three minutes remaining. Southampton kept fighting. But why? The game was effectively over, the points were decided. Nobody told Divina, throwing herself into challenges, covering every inch of the court, doing everything she could to help the Southampton cause. Moody nearly helped to get Southampton a fourth, but Curtis did not connect with the cross. Ingram nearly got the goal that she's been threatening for a while, shooting wide of the near post. Sayler even had a shot blocked with twenty seconds to go, and Heath received the ball inside the D, but could not adjust her feet to get the shot away.
A bad performance on the day, exacerbated by a terrible start. Lessons to be learned, and not a lot to be happy about beyond the never-say-die attitude that was exhibited right until the end.
The player of the season for our NFS South season, Rebekah Tonks was selected as the Aztecs player of the match. When it was all going wrong for us on the court, Bekah persevered and still produced the goods. Three goals for the number ten, as she continues to display excellence.
Watch the highlights back here.
View the whole match below (game starts just after four hours and twenty minutes into the feed).
The scores from the day of games.
University of Liverpool 4 v 2 Bolton
Southampton Aztecs 3 v 9 Birmingham WLV
Worcester 2 v 4 Manchester
London Helvecia 6 v 3 Bloomsbury
With three games remaining before the playoffs, who do you think will make the top four? Positions 1-4 qualify for semi-finals to compete for the national title. Positions 5-8 go into a relegation playoff, which will include the Tier 2 North and South winners, which will be Bedford and Cheshire. Positions 5-8 are split into two groups, with Bedford and Cheshire being put into either of those groups to make two groups of three. Following a mini round robin tournament, the two bottom teams will be relegated into Tier 2. All of these playoff games will be seeded, providing extra incentive to finish as high up the table as possible.
Want to get your predictions in? Here are the remaining games for each team.
Saturday 9th of April @ Hartpury College [YouTube]
Worcester v Bloomsbury
Bolton v Helvecia
Manchester v Aztecs
Liverpool v Birmingham
Monday 18th of April @ Wolverhampton [BT Sport]
Birmingham v Bolton
Manchester v Liverpool
Helvecia v Worcester
Bloomsbury v Aztecs
Monday 2nd of May @ Wolverhampton [BT Sport]
Aztecs v Worcester
Bloomsbury v Bolton
Birmingham v Manchester
Helvecia v Liverpool
Enjoy photos from the game below!
With the great work that the league are doing, and the excellent people within the clubs up and down the country, it's great to see that we're starting to have an effect, and hopefully being a force for good in the world. We know we have fans that tune in to watch from around the world, as well as a few that make appearances in person. We really want futsal to grow and become a more prominent sport in England, and we really want there to be more opportunities for female players to play and compete. Thanks for coming to see us, thanks for watching our games, thanks for checking us out on social media, and thanks for buying merchandise.
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Our next game is at Hartpury College on the 26th of March. It's a 14:00 kick off on a Saturday afternoon. It will be great to see as many of you there as possible. Come along and join in the futsal fun! It's just under two hours from Southampton by car, so the closest thing we can get to a home game.