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Soho’s title defence got off to a poor start as they succumbed to a 3-2 defeat to a spirited Stonewall side at Barn Elms on Sunday (1 September).
The defeat is an ominous sign for a Soho side which has now lost three consecutive competitive games dating back to last season, and is without a number of key players, including captain and last season’s player of the year, James Riley, and league top scorer Cameron, both lost to injury.
The former’s absence was felt early on, with disorganisation plaguing the base of the Soho midfield and their back four; within fifteen minutes, both central midfielders Dan Soile and Bjørn were caught pressing too high, leaving space for the Stonewall forwards to run at the heart of the Soho defence. The defenders failed to clear their lines, forcing goalkeeper Will to come charging out to challenge the home side’s forward, bringing them down and conceding a penalty.
While Will was able to keep out the penalty with a smart save, Stonewall were able to take advantage of the Soho laxness minutes later, their forwards able to run through the centre of the visitors’ defence once more. This time, the defenders had a number of chances to clear the ball, but failed to do so, eventually leaving space for a Stonewall forward to poke in from close range, and give the home side a deserved lead.
Soho tried to press back for an equaliser, and had a number of opportunities throughout the first half to get a goal back. Centre-back AJ nearly scored from his own half, his long ball deflecting off the Stonewall keeper’s hands and onto the crossbar, and debutant Jonathan swung in a number of corners to trouble the home side’s defenders. James was the liveliest threat for the visitors; while the lone striker was left isolated for much of the half, he pressed defenders, chased down loose balls and generally made a nuisance of himself in the Stonewall half, an impressive feat considering his own injury history that led to his legs being comprised of more neoprene strapping than flesh on Sunday.
However, Soho’s pressure came to nothing, and Stonewall were able to double their lead midway through the second half. Centre-back Charlie headed a Stonewall clearance away just inside the Soho half, but the ball bounced into an empty space between the other Soho defenders and a Stonewall forward. The forward won the footrace, picked up the ball and sprinted into the Soho half, before finishing around a helpless Will to make it 2-0.
Unhappy with the direction of play, coach Connor – standing in for Austen and Gez, whose annual scouting trip to Ibiza meant they could not be at the game in person – made a first-half change, replacing debutant Jonathan with another making his Soho bow, Aiden, who immediately introduced aggression and mobility to the Soho midfield. He linked up well with James, creating a number of chances for the forward, but the pair were unable to cut into the Stonewall lead before the break, and the home side went in two goals up.
At half-time, another debutant, Dio, was introduced for Dan Hall on the right wing, and the pace of both Soho substitutes was a constant threat for the home side. However, as the visitors pressed for goals, they left the already overwhelmed back four increasingly isolated, the nominal 4-3-2-1 often resembling a 4-2-4, with only the marauding Dan Soile and Bjørn anywhere near the Soho back four. This buccaneering approach was punished early in the second half, with Stonewall finding a winger in space on the left from a well-worked routine, who smashed a shot past Will at the near post to give their side a three-goal cushion.
However, the visitors refused to lie down, and continued pressing the Stonewall players in possession, and looking to find either the runs of Aiden and Dio in behind, or the forehead of James backing into the Stonewall centre-halves. A couple of excellent long balls from Will befuddled the Stonewall defenders, and soon both Dio and Aiden had capitalised on the space behind the home side’s defence to score in quick succession, leaving the score 3-2 with ten minutes to go.
At this point, Stonewall pushed their defence back a dozen yards, and dropped an additional defender in to shore up the heart of their defence, a 4-3-3 morphing to a 5-4-1 as they looked to see out the game. From this point, they were much more composed under the high ball, and the congestion in the middle of the pitch – with the Soho midfielders, Aiden, substitute forward Wingy and myself, introduced on the left but prone to cutting infield – making it difficult for the visitors to make much headway.
The home side were also supremely clinical with regards to slowing the game down, taking the ball towards the corner flags, and generally disrupting an increasingly exasperated Soho attack in the closing stages. They also posed a significant threat on the counter with their pace and direct passing, and required Will to come charging out of his box to clean out a forward who had sprung the offside trap in the closing stages; Will was lucky to avoid so much as a yellow card for the foul, and meant that he could end the game with he curious statistical performance of having committed two fouls as the last player, not so much as received a booking, and saved a penalty, in a performance that will have thoroughly confused the algorithm behind the London Unity League fantasy football app.
However, the visitors remained optimistic that a chance would come and, sure enough, it did. Unfortunately for Soho, however, that chance fell to myself.
A late corner swung into the penalty area somehow looped over the five Stonewall defenders to myself, unmarked, on the penalty spot; imaging the accolades that would fall my way should I score, and the headlines that I myself would write in praise of my impending triumph, I took my eye off the ball and headed it onto my own shoulder, from where it dribbled limply past the post. This was the 93rdminute, and proved to be our last chance, as the referee blew the final whistle moments later.
The victory sees Stonewall occupy fourth place in the expanded nine-team league following one round of matches, with all but one side, Charlton, seeing action on the league’s opening weekend. They will visit London Romans on the 15thof September, while Soho will play a second away fixture this weekend against Titans 2Brewers, a game that will pit last season’s league champions and runners up against one another. With both sides losing their opening game – Soho to Stonewall and Titans to Romans – it could prove to be a decisive fixture early in the season.
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