Brighton & Hove Albion and Bristol City were two teams in desperate need of a confidence boosting result going into the second game of the Continental Cup group stage. The problem was: they were playing each other.
The stage is set for Brighton & Hove Albion to face Bristol City at the People's Pension Stadium
The two teams were meeting for the second time this season, following a 0-0 draw in the opening game at Ashton Gate.
This time, at the People's Pension Stadium in Crawley, a draw wasn't an option: the Conti Cup only allows wins or losses, using a penalty shootout if necessary to determine who takes home the bulk of the points – 3 points for an outright win, 2 from a penalty shootout win; 0 points from an outright loss, 1 from a penalty shootout loss.
Sketchy previous records
Despite very different 2018-19 seasons – Bristol finished sixth in the WSL, nine points ahead of Brighton in ninth place, and while the Seagulls got to the quarter finals of the Conti Cup, Bristol didn't make it out of the group stage – the first five weeks of the 2019-20 campaign saw the two teams somewhat mirror each other.
Sat in ninth and 10th respectively in the Women's Super League, separated only by Brighton's two goals scored compared to Bristol's one, both of their league campaigns have featured two losses and two draws.
Following their opening day stalemate, Brighton drew 1-1 with Chelsea before losing 4-0 to Arsenal and 3-1 to West Ham.
Bristol, meanwhile, lost 2-0 to Everton and 4-0 to Chelsea before drawing 1-1 away to Liverpool.
Prior to their Conti Cup match up, the two teams were second and third in Group B, Brighton above Bristol only because of the alphabet. Both had recorded 3-0 wins over Championship sides: Brighton beat Charlton, while Bristol were victorious against the London Bees.
There was a feeling, therefore, going into the game on 20 October, that this was more than just a Conti Cup match up. It was a chance for one of the two teams to stamp their authority and show that they've got enough to breakaway from the WSL stragglers, a group of four in which they are joined by Birmingham City and Liverpool.
As Brighton first-team manager Hope Powell said in her programme notes: 'There is no doubt that winning breeds confidence and to get three points today would be a massive boost for everyone in the squad.'
Brighton the favourites
Brighton were slight favourites before kick off – not only did they have home advantage, they were the better team in their earlier match up, and many would argue that as similar as the two clubs' start to the season had been, Brighton were marginally the more successful.
The loss to West Ham aside, none of the Seagulls' points dropped had been particularly unexpected. A loss against Arsenal is, for most teams in the league, standard practice.
In fact, Brighton gained points when many thought they wouldn't, their draw with Chelsea was particularly impressive: they were unlucky to not take three points away from their encounter with the league contenders, who got their equaliser in added time.
Bristol, on the other hand, will believe they should have done better against Everton, a team they finished four positions ahead of last season, while the draw with Liverpool, was particularly disappointing, especially considering Liverpool dominated the game with 66% of the possession and 17 shots compared to Bristol's seven.
The two teams' fortunes so far this season have been indicative of a positive trend for the WSL as a whole: levels are changing and as such things aren't quite so predictable.
Arsenal have already been beaten, albeit by Chelsea, but then again that's the same Chelsea that Brighton drew with.
United beat City in the Manchester derby last week, while Tottenham, the other newly promoted team, have already got three wins under their belt this season.
In a league with 12 teams – 22 games in total – margins are always going to be tight. One result here and another there can completely change the landscape. And four games into the league season may not sound like much, but it's almost 20% gone.
Bristol manager Tanya Oxtoby chats to her players after their win
Both Brighton and Bristol were struggling with goals going into the game. Bristol had scored one in the league, a strike against Liverpool from Ebony Salmon, and three in the Conti Cup.
Brighton had managed two in the league and three in the Conti Cup, yet two of those three were Kayleigh Green penalties.
The Seagulls made five changes from the team that lost to West Ham in a bid for goals. Notably, though, the two players that had scored goals from open play for Brighton this season, Aileen Whelan and Ini Umotong, were both dropped to the bench.
Bristol strike first
While Brighton had marginally more possession early on, and the first opportunity of the game when Gibbons went close, it was Bristol who struck first: Abi Harrison put the ball across Sophie Harris in goal and into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.
Brighton were undeterred though, and pushed for an equaliser. They had some good chances, yet neither came from their build up play.
Though their build up was good to a point, it repeatedly got lost in the final third of the pitch when the Seagulls couldn't find that final pass or flick.
Their best chances, instead, came through City's sloppiness at the back. A determination to play out from the back saw the Robins get themselves in trouble on more than one occasion, resulting in a headed effort from Emily Simpkins and a shot from Kayleigh Green, both of which they managed to keep at bay.
City double their lead
City's fortune at not conceding was all forgotten in the forty-seventh minute when Ebony Salmon dinked the ball over Harris in goal, doubling her side's lead and making it two goals in two starts for the 18-year-old.
After the break, Brighton came out determined to force their way back into the game, Lea Le Garrec in particular was fired up while Kate Natkiel tested Sophie Baggaley in the Brighton goal.
A break through did come when Green was judged to have been brought down in the area, and she stepped up to put away the resulting penalty, her third penalty conversion of the season so far.
Albion continued to push, yet the best chance of an equaliser was headed wide by substitute Whelan.
The game, which had an attendance of 442, ended 2-1 to the visitors, and saw them leapfrog Brighton in the group, now in position to move on to the knockout stages.
While much media attention has been given to Chelsea manager Emma Hayes' calls to 'get rid of the Continental Cup' over the last couple of weeks, it's games like Brighton against Bristol that show why the tournament is still useful.
It gives the WSL teams that aren't necessarily title challengers chances to work on their game and, in the case of Bristol City this time, build confidence to take back into the league.
A chance to develop
In the pre-match programme, Bristol manager Tanya Oxtoby said: 'We're trying to develop a new style of play at the club where we're asking players to use our principles to make decisions, to be brave on the ball and to control the game through possession.'
The attempt to implement such a style of play was apparent throughout the fixture when Brighton tried to play possession-based football from the back. Inevitably, the style also left City exposed on a number of occasions, something which a team with a stronger goal-scoring threat than Brighton will likely capitalise on.
Yet Oxtoby is prepared for this. She also told the programme: 'But with that [style of play] there are risks and sometimes mistakes occur and you're always going to get that with a young squad.'
This Conti Cup fixture gave Bristol the opportunity to make those mistakes, continue to play their football despite them, and ultimately come out on top. In their next league game against Tottenham, City will be prepped and ready to do the same.
For Brighton, although a loss, the game was also a learning curve. What's most apparent is that the Seagulls need to find out a way to score goals, and they need to do it quickly, especially considering their next fixture sees them visit Everton, who are currently enjoying somewhat of a league revival.
Though neither Brighton or Bristol are having the best of seasons, it's unlikely that either of them will be relegated into the Championship, with Liverpool and Birmingham currently looking the more suspect of the bottom four teams.
What they do risk, though, is being eclipsed by the teams in and around them that seem to have found identity, and thus results, this season faster than they have.
The Conti Cup gives them a chance to play, learn and build. Something that can only benefit the league.