Having met twice already this season in the league and Capital Cup, with Orient victorious on both occassions, the first game back after Christmas would prove mentally and physically demanding. Orient came into the match in second place, whilst Denham occupied 10th spot in the table.
Manager Chris Brayford made four changes to the side who started at league-leaders AFC Wimbledon before the mid-season break. Kathryn Canavan and Francesca Cagetti came into defence, whilst Lisa Holmback and Rebecca Hirst stepped into midfield as the O’s lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
On a cold afternoon in Mile End, Orient started the game on the front foot and succeeded in winning their physical battles. Kayleigh Xidhas was deployed in central defensive midfield alongside Holmback, whilst Hirst operated just behind Sárka Stryhalova in attack.
There were very few chances of note in the opening ten minutes. However, the O’s opened the scoring on 13 minutes courtesy of top scorer Sophie Le Marchand. Denham goalkeeper Gracie Perkis reacted well to produce a save, only to see the ball fall nicely into the path of Le Marchand who tapped home her 17th goal of the season.
With momentum in their favour, Orient came close to doubling their lead on 19 minutes. Hayley Barton whipped in a fine cross from the right, but the ball had too much pace behind it with Hirst unable to make a connection in the area.
Three minutes later, Hirst made no mistake as she bagged her first goal for the club. Le Marchand cut the ball back to Stryhalova in the box who was denied by Perkis, before the ball fell kindly for Hirst who controlled and rifled a shot into the roof of the net to give the O’s a two-goal cushion.
Denham had grown into the match prior to the goals, and continued to try and cause Orient problems despite their deficit. After working some space on the right flank, Lauren Cox saw her shot comfortably dealt with by O’s keeper Naomi Ogunde.
With ten minutes until half time, the visitors started to see more of the ball in the final third and forced Orient back inside their own half. This pressure paid off on 37 minutes when Denham pulled a goal back. Sophie Cheadle pounced on a loose ball and fizzed a powerful strike beyond a stranded Ogunde into the bottom right corner.
Orient needed to find a response to this setback. Le Marchand worked an opening but dragged her shot just wide of the near post. Then, Canavan delivered a pin-point cross from the right but nobody in a red shirt was there to connect.
It was a competitive first half of football with very little to separate the sides in the early stages. Orient’s two goal cushion appeared to have settled the hosts, but Cheadle’s goal would set up an intriguing 45 minutes with the scoreline hanging in the balance.
At the break, the O’s made their first change of the afternoon with Chanel Richards replacing Xidhas. On 52 minutes, Denham came close to finding an equaliser when Annie Hewitt’s shot swerved and almost deceived Ogunde who managed to push the ball away from danger.
With Denham asking questions, Orient needed to test Perkis more often. Barton weaved through a couple of challenges and got a shot away, but watched her effort trickle wide of the goal.
The hosts made a double change with Connie Montiel-McCann coming into midfield for Hirst, whilst Vanessa Wilson replaced Canavan at right-back. There was a short delay in the match as Perkis received treatment, and thankfully she was able to continue.
With neither side able to find another goal, it was shaping up to be a tense final quarter of an hour. Orient had lacked creativity and a cutting edge in attack this half, whilst a confident looking Denham maintained their search for a late leveller.
Although, the O’s could have sealed the points when Barton picked out Holmback, who came inside before curling a left footed effort over the top. Holmback was outstanding in midfield, winning tackles and making crucial interceptions to earn the Player of the Match award.
Orient kept possession in Denham’s half of the pitch, and closed the game out professionally to collect all three points in their first league match of 2018.
After the match, captain Danielle Griffiths gave her thoughts on the O’s performance: “It’s a good three points to start the second half of the season. We’re probably slightly disappointed with the performance, but there is room to improve, it’s just good to get three points on the board.”
Griffiths commented on the O’s next opponents, Milton Keynes Dons: “It’s a very important fixture, we know they are within touching distance of us in the league. We’re both fighting for both the title, second and third places. It’s going to be difficult, we know they will be a good team but hopefully we can push on with the performances.”
Orient will travel to third place MK Dons Ladies on Sunday looking for a win that would maintain the pressure on AFC Wimbledon in first place, with kick off scheduled for 2pm at Newport Pagnell Town FC, MK16 0DF.
Highlights from the O’s victory over Denham are available to view – here.