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Canterbury Hit WaiBOP's Play-Off Hopes For Six
Story by Jeremy Ruane

Canterbury United Pride dealt Waikato-Bay of Plenty's National Women's League play-off hopes a serious blow at Cambridge's John Kerkhof Park on November 20, pummelling the locals 6-1, all but securing their own play-off spot in the process.

The visitors were in the zone from the very first whistle, Lily Bray's strong driving run in the third element, supplemented by a one-two with Macey Fraser, allowing the midfielder to get to the by-line, from where she picked out Annalie Longo, whose smart turn unhinged the defence and invited the Football Fern to unleash a fifteen yard drive which arrowed a foot past the post.

As a statement of intent, it was better than average. But they didn't sustain it initially, a wind-assisted twenty-five yarder from Bray all they offered inside the next fifteen minutes, and Amanda Wilshier dealt with it as if picking a plum off a tree.

WaiBOP were without the cutting edge which the absent Kim-E Maguire and Helen Arjomandi generally offer - and how they were missed! In their absence, Leanna Ryan was charged with leading the line via her left flank role, and it was in this area where she first caused Canterbury problems in the sixteenth minute.

Catching Bray in possession near the edge of the penalty area, Ryan stormed into the box, darting past Rebecca Lake before fizzing a low cross across the face of goal. No-one in a red shirt was following in, but Chloe Jones picked up the pieces for United, and began the counter-attack which produced the game's opening goal.

Ashleigh Ward, Longo and Holly Pascoe were swiftly brought into play as the ball was moved downfield at speed, before Fraser produced the finishing touch, much to the despair of the local contingent among a good-sized crowd bolstered by a few folk who had travelled down from Auckland, given no NWL games were scheduled up the road in this round.

WaiBOP were still reeling from that blow when Canterbury hit them with a double whammy three minutes later. Surging forward to the half-way line, Emma Clarke weighted a gorgeous pass into Longo's feet just outside the penalty area.

She jinked this way and that to bemuse Katherine Robinson and Serena Murrihy before changing the angle of attack with a reverse pass into the stride of the unmarked Aimee Phillips, whose first time finish across Wilshier into the far corner of the net was as clinical as you'll see.

Inside the next five minutes, Helen Talbot and Chelsea Elliott attempted to beat Victoria Esson from long-range, to no avail, while on the half-hour, Murrihy's timely intervention denied Pascoe a third Canterbury goal, after Whitney Hepburn and Longo had prised open WaiBOP's defence once more.

Ryan was offering the home team's only real attacking resistance, and in the 31st minute, broke clear on the left before firing a rising drive over the far angle of the target. United responded through Ward, the beneficiary of a move featuring Clarke, Longo and Bray. The former Junior Fern stung the gloves of Wilshier with her long-range effort, prompting a counter-attack which Clarke initially cleaned up, only to have her pocket picked by Ryan.

She dashed towards the target, only to be confronted by Lake. Both were left reeling from their collision, but Ryan still had the presence of mind to try to get a shot on target. Hepburn was on hand to assist her stunned central defensive team-mate, while Ryan, too, welcomed the chance to recover over the course of the next few minutes.

She was back in the thick of things again four minutes before half-time, however, Wilshier having smothered a twenty-yarder from Bray in between times, after Ward and Pascoe had teamed up on Canterbury's left flank.

Ryan this time got to the byline on the left before weaving past two opponents and steering the ball back into the stride of Leah Gubb. With Esson unsighted, the youngster lashed a low drive towards the 'postage stamp' at the base of the near post, only for the 'keeper to somehow get down and paw it to safety.

That was as close as WaiBOP got to scoring in the first half, but there was still time for one more Canterbury opportunity, with Longo's shot on the run being tipped round the post by Wilshier.

Quite how referee Sarah Jones saw fit to award a goal-kick mind, her assistants' signals weren't exactly timely on occasions. Perhaps they were relishing the lovely weather, and the rare pleasure of a match being played on natural grass, as opposed to the heat-attracting turf pitches on which many matches in this competition take place.

The locals began the second half in the ascendancy, with Michaela Foster and Elliott combining in the 48th minute to present Emma Cawte with a great chance which, nine times out of ten, she'd have scored. She just happened to find herself facing the best 'keeper in the country on this occasion, however, Esson proving the point with a stunning save at point-blank range to avert the danger.

But Esson was fishing the ball out of her net sixty seconds later, a defensive blunder allowing Gubb to catch her off her line from twenty-five yards - 2-1, and hope for the natives that their play-off prospects weren't yet dashed.

Within seven minutes, however, they had been - well and truly! Straight from the kick-off, Longo grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, drove Canterbury forward and slipped pass into the stride of Phillips, whose deft finish allowed her to avoid Hannah Reid's challenge and Wilshier's despairing dive - 3-1.

Not content with having restored their two-goal advantage, United pressed again, earning a 54th minute corner. Ward's delivery picked out Jones, whose shot was blocked by a team-mate. But the rebound fell invitingly into the stride of Pascoe, who powered it through a crowded goalmouth into the net beyond.

Two minutes later, Longo turned a dog's breakfast of a pass from Ward into the footballing equivalent of haute cuisine. In doing so, she cooked up all sorts of trouble for WaiBOP's rearguard, the ultimate beneficiary of which was Pascoe, who gleefully tucked home United's fifth goal from ten yards in the 56th minute.

Game effectively over. Cue the raft of substitutions which tend to adversely impact upon the quality and flow of these games during the last half-hour of play. Why are so many required when it's no longer a development league, which the National Women's League was for the five seasons between 2010-11 and 2014-15? Three at most, please, as one should expect to see in a senior level competition such as this.

Amid the stoppages, some football was played, and of a standard worthy of mention. Twenty minutes from time, WaiBOP had a goal ruled out by the offside flag - a harsh way for Ryan to see her fine work down the left go unrewarded.

After Esson got away with nearly getting caught in possession by Sarah Krystman, WaiBOP substitute Ella Golding swooped on a loose ball and got the better of Gabi Rennie before battering a cross-shot which clipped the crossbar.

Back came Canterbury, who dominated the final ten minutes of proceedings. Arna Roberts linked with Pascoe, whose progress was thwarted by Maxine Rawnsley, at the expense of a corner, which Ward whipped into the near post area. Rising above all-comers was Lake, whose header ricocheted into the net off a defender - 6-1, seven minutes from time.

And they wanted more goals. Wilshier denied Rennie within sixty seconds of the latest one, and in stoppage time she kept out a Roberts effort, while shots from Tahlia Herman-Watt and Roberts were blocked by Golding and Robinson respectively, before Ryan headed a Roberts header off the line from Ward's corner, the last act of the match.

The result, allied to Capital Football's surprise 2-1 defeat of reigning champions Northern Football, means there is all to play for next Sunday, when Canterbury host Central Football at English Park, and WaiBOP head up the road to take on Northern on the QBE Stadium Tigerturf, where a win for either side will end the season for their opponent.

WaiBOP: Wilshier; Foster (Golding, 68), Reid, Robinson, Murrihy (Williams, 68); Krystman (Courtney-Tennent, 83), Talbot (Rawnsley, 58), Cawte, Ryan; Gubb, Elliott (Rhein, 73).

Canterbury: Esson; Clarke (Thomas, 87), Lake, Jones, Ward; Longo, Hepburn, Bray (Rennie, 59); Fraser (Williams, 68), Phillips (Roberts, 81), Pascoe (Herman-Watt, 87).

Referee: Sarah Jones.

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