Photograph: Ashley Crowden/Alamy Live News/Alamy Live News.
West Ham saw off a Bristol City comeback at Ashton Gate to secure an important three points in their Women’s Super League relegation battle. Honoka Hayashi’s opener was levelled out by Amalie Thestrup before Viviane Asseyi struck with a fine finish to send her team home with a vital victory.
A disappointed Lauren Smith said her Bristol City side now faced “10 Cup finals” in their battle for survival. “There’s plenty of football to play, so we’re not sat here thinking that’s it,” she said. “But we’re playing for our lives at this point … there’s no room for error or to be naive. Ten games starting now to make sure we stay in the league.”
Related: Newport v Manchester United: FA Cup fourth round – live
The stage was set for a six-pointer at Ashton Gate, a tense encounter between sides separated only by goal difference at the foot of the table.
Smith was dealt a blow in the week when two members of her defence, Naomi Layzell and Chloe Mustaki, picked up knocks. The experienced Satara Murray returned after a spell out with injury while the teenager Mari Ward was handed her full WSL debut, an illustration of the faith the Robins’ manager has in her young players.
West Ham’s Rehanne Skinner also made changes after her side’s disappointing defeat by Tottenham last Sunday. Shelina Zadorsky, on loan from Spurs, made her first league start for the club while Jess Ziu and Emma Harries were also awarded places from the start.
There was a party atmosphere at Ashton Gate, featuring a brass band and some impressive dance moves from the hosts’ mascots, with more than 6,000 in attendance. It served City well in the opening moments as they made an energetic start. They created a good chance with just two minutes on the clock when an unmarked Sille Struck headed a Megan Connolly delivery narrowly over the bar.
The hosts were proving dangerous from set pieces, but it was the visitors who struck first against the run of play. Riko Ueki’s powerful drive was not cleared and the rebound fell perfectly for Hayashi just outside the penalty area. The Japan midfielder took one touch to set herself before drilling a perfectly placed effort into the bottom corner.
It was the breakthrough the Hammers needed to take the sting out of the hosts. From that point, they dominated the ball and began to create multiple chances. Amber Tysiak came close to doubling the score before Asseyi produced a spectacular finish, only for it to be disallowed for an infringement.
Smith decided to roll the dice, partly out of necessity and partly in a bid to alter the course of the afternoon, when she brought on Lisa Evans for a limping Murray just before the break. Evans had made the switch from West Ham in midweek and, in a odd coincidence, came up against her old side immediately. It resulted in a change of system as the hosts switch to a back four, while Ffion Morgan was introduced at half-time.
It was a change that had an immediate impact. After Zadorsky had another West Ham goal disallowed, this time for offside, the Welsh winger drove half the length of the field before beating Katrina Gorry in the box. Her vision for the cut‑back was equally as accurate as she set up Thestrup for her sixth goal of the campaign.
The leveller was cue for the game to open up as both sides threatened. With spaces emerging, it was a prime situation for a player of Asseyi’s ilk to prosper. She left the Bristol City back-line in her wake as she broke on to Ziu’s threaded pass, before dinking her shot perfectly past the onrushing Shae Yáñez.
Download the Guardian app from the iOS App Store on iPhone or the Google Play store on Android by searching for ‘The Guardian’.
If you already have the Guardian app, make sure you’re on the most recent version.
In the Guardian app, tap the Menu button at the bottom right, then go to Settings (the gear icon), then Notifications.
Turn on sport notifications.
The Robins rolled the dice again to try to restore parity. They threatened the West Ham goal but could not find a clinical finish. As the whistle blew, the relief was palpable on the faces of the West Ham players.
It had been a run of eight league matches without a win for the London side and their manager was delighted. “I’m really proud of the players and the way they went about the game,” said Skinner. “I think we’ve been performing well. It’s just a case of having to do some of the ugly stuff at times and make sure that we see it through.”
It was a victory that opened up a three‑point cushion over their opponents, a little bit of breathing room in the battle for survival.