Watford Ladies were unable to jump above Sunderland into top spot in the National Premier League after a tough Manchester City side held them to a 1-1 draw – the same scoreline in their earlier league encounter at Berkhamsted - but it needed an injury-time penalty to snatch a point for the hosts.
Both teams were well organised and not willing to give an inch in Sunday's clash, although it took a very brave piece of defending from one of the City back four to prevent the Hornets from taking the lead inside the first ten minutes.
After the hosts had only half cleared, the ball fell to Kate Natkiel on the edge of the box and she hit a ferocious strike that had the keeper rooted to the spot. But the City defender managed to get her head in the way to divert the ball away, after which extensive treatment was needed for the now dazed player.
The hosts started to come more into it as the half wore on though, and would feel they had three good chances to open the scoring.
A cross into the Watford area from the left wing found a forward’s header and it looped up over Lauren Davey’s dive but cannoned off the crossbar and away. An under-hit back pass then caused Davey some concern as a City striker looked to capitalise and although she managed to round the England Under-23 goalkeeper, she was forced wide and could only shoot into the side netting from an acute angle. Davey then showed her worth to this hard-working Watford side as she made an excellent block in a one-on-one situation to keep the scoreline blank.
It was the Golden Girls who opened the scoring at the best possible time, in time added on in the first half.
Renee Hector’s ball into the right channel was raced on to by Sarah Wiltshire and she went at the left-back, beat her for pace on the outside, before delivering a pin-point cross into the area that found the waiting Jo Wilson, who headed down and into the net past keeper Andrea Worrell.
If City were to feel hard done by after coming in at the break a goal down after a half they dominated, then it wasn’t to be the case after the restart as Watford raised their performance and showed all the battling qualities that have rewarded them this season as City struggled to find any way back into the match.
A quick counter-attack midway through the half saw Wiltshire burst into the City penalty area only to be bundled over as she was about to shoot. The referee pointed to the spot and Wiltshire picked herself up to take the kick. But Worrell guessed correctly and flung herself to her left to make a great low one-handed save and divert the ball away.
But still it didn’t seem like City would find a way past the stubborn Watford defence until the match headed into injury time.
A free-kick from deep was pumped high into the Watford area and in a melee of players anticipating the flight of the ball, a City player went down in the box and for the second time in the match, the referee pointed to the spot.
Sarah Danby, scorer of the goal that earned City a draw in the match at Berkhamsted, stepped up to take it and fired down the centre of the goal past Davey to tie the scores.
There was still time for City player Lynda Shepherd to earn her second caution of the match for an illegal barge from behind on Wiltshire and receive her marching orders.
The draw took Watford to just one point behind league leaders Sunderland, albeit with the champions having two games in hand. But it also means that with seven matches still to play for the Golden Girls, they’ve still only lost one match so far this season.
Manager John Salomon said afterwards: “Today was a bit of a roller coaster. We defended well first half and came in one up, then I felt we were the more likely side second half, only to be undone by a very controversial late penalty.
“Football can be cruel sometimes, but in a year we've gone from fighting for our lives at the bottom of the league to being disappointed that we are not top of the league tonight. We're in a fantastic position, on reflection it's a very good point and we now look forward to the challenge of Leeds United in the FA Cup.”
Watford’s next match is on Sunday, February 24 when they host Leeds United Ladies in the Women’s FA Cup fourth round at Berkhamsted FC, kick-off 2pm.
Watford Ladies: Davey, Mays, Hector, Gunn, Butterwick, Rowell (Beckett), Gibbons, Natkiel (Wynne), Wiltshire, Green (Martin Garcia), Wilson.