Oxford United Women beaten by Doncaster Rovers Belles
Oxford United Women slipped to their second defeat of the season in cruel fashion as a deadly second-half display from title favourites Doncaster Rovers Belles saw the U's go down to a 4-1 defeat. United were impressive in the opening half of the game and took the lead through Sahara Osborne-Ricketts. But a controversial equaliser on the stroke of half-time set the stage for what was to come next as a revitalised Belles ran away with it, scoring three more times to put the match beyond the visitors.
Manager Les Taylor made two changes from the side which lost 3-0 to London Bees in their opening match, captain Sahara Osborne-Ricketts returning from suspension to take up a more advanced role as a holding midfielder in place of Lindsay Pinker, while Laura Low made her first start of the season, replacing Holly Pickett, who was carrying a knock from the previous match.
After a cagey opening in which United survived some nervy moments the U's began to settle and even began to control the flow of the game. Captain Osborne-Ricketts rattled the crossbar with one early free-kick but the visitors' main threat came from Katie Stanley and Laura Low on the flanks, who gave the home side's full-backs plenty of trouble in the first half.
The hosts, on the other hand, were causing problems with their set pieces, with Millie Bright heading Sue Smith's free-kick narrowly wide. Jess Sigsworth broke free from one quickly taken free-kick which caught the U's defence napping, but Amy Chivers responded excellently to block her effort.
And having withstood some early pressure the U's began to press forward themselves as the half wore on, taking the lead shortly before the break. Sahara Osborne-Ricketts netted Oxford's first goal in the WSL, prodding home after a scramble in front of goal and sparking wild celebrations from her teammates.
The hosts were clearly shocked at falling behind and soon set about levelling the scores. Goalkeeper Demi Lambourne had to be alert to keep out a Smith effort which was curling in from distance, but right on the stroke of half-time she was finally beaten in controversial fashion. An attempted clearance from Rosie Lane looped back towards Lambourne, who came and collected only to see referee Mark Dwyer signal a free-kick for a backpass. United lined up their entire side on the line to face the kick, but Lauren Cresswell fired her shot into the roof of the net to send the sides in level at the break.
Lambourne had picked up a knock at the end of the first half, following a nasty collision as she bravely came out to punch clear and she lasted just 15 minutes of the second, making way for Hannah Cox early on. Cox was unfortunate that her first serious contribution was to pick the ball out of the back of the net. Sigsworth was pulled down by Osborne-Ricketts 30 yards from goal and Cresswell fired home an unstoppable free-kick for the Belles' second of the evening.
That triggered a disastrous spell as the hosts went on to score two more goals in a matter of minutes as United's resistance crumbled. Sigsworth was involved again, taking possession on the touchline before crossing for Reanne Thomas to tap in from close range. And just moments later it was four as Ashleigh Mills lobbed Cox from the edge of the six-yard box.
United were left reeling but dug in for the final stages of the match. Doncaster created chances to extend their lead with Sigsworth and Thomas both going close, but United tightened up at the back and restricted their opportunities.
Ultimately Oxford were left to reflect on what might have been, having taken the lead before being cruelly pegged back just before the break, which gave the home side the platform to push on in the second half. The scoreline was again harsh on the U's, who were more than competitive for much of the match, but attention will now turn to next Sunday and the visit of Yeovil Town as United look for their first points of the season.
United team: Lambourne (Cox 50), Mobbs, Chivers, Connor-Iommi, Lane, Osborne-Ricketts (Franklin-Fraiture 73), Hines, Stanley, King, Low (Pinker 83), Allison. Subs not used: Boxall, Pickett, Fellows.
Photos by Darrell Fisher.