Team Ritesh Football Whanganui continue to search for the formula that will let them topple the undefeated Hokowhitu FC, who earned their 2-0 victory the hard way at Wembley Park on Sunday afternoon.
In the battle between first and second on the table at the end of the second round of Women's Federation League games, Hokowhitu (8-2-0) are the only team to beat Whanganui (4-4-2) this season, having also won 3-1 at home in May.
Player-for-player, Whanganui put on a better performance than their scrappy 2-1 victory in their last Wembley Park game with Taradale FC, but the scoreline reflected just how strong Hokowhitu are in the 1 vs 1 moments.
Whanganui's passing game and ball control was crisper, while their urgency to sprint into gaps as support players or sweep back on defence after turnovers was commendable.
But the visitors clearly trust each of their individual players to get on ball carrier's shoulder and crowd them for room, while the rest hold back in cover, and with rolling substitutions they played at a high tempo throughout.
Unlike seasons past, Whanganui were not going to back down on their home turf and responded to Hokowhitu's physicality with a couple of slide tackles and hard clearing kicks of their own, which resulted in three of the visitors coming off hurt, including their leading striker for a time.
However, Hokowhitu brought on their veterans for the latter part of the second half, who don't have the same pace of the starters, yet have retained all their guile and ball skills – suddenly making it hard for Whanganui to get the ball moving back up through the midfield, while their threatening runs from the wings were always shadowed so the angle was cut down when it was time to shoot or cross kick.
Just like she did with a player of the day effort in May, the Hokowhitu goalkeeper had an excellent match with a number of dive saves, while it was their captain Kowhai Hudson who had the definitive say on the match.
In the 53rd minute, Hudson ran onto a good pass to thread the needle between two Whanganui defenders and breakaway, where despite both of them converging and goal keeper Megan O'Connor making the decision to come forward, Hudson calmly produced a lovely push over the top for two bounces into the left hand corner.
Then with just seven minutes left, with Whanganui looking tired from the constant end-to-end effort, Hudson ran another great angle off a perfect pass from the striker, and this time slid her shot just underneath the midsection of a diving O'Connor for the ball to roll across the goal line.
Knowing his team is now performing at a higher level than was expected at season's kickoff in April, Whanganui coach Matt Calvert said they would rue the "silly mistakes" that let Hokowhitu break through their structure.
"Just got to learn and pick up things from it.
"We were closer this game than away from home against them.
"Good teams punish you, when you switch off.
"That's the best team in the League, so they took it to us today.
"We struggled to break it down. Defensively, [Hokowhitu] were brilliant."
Hokowhitu should have been up 1-0 in the first half but bombed a 2 vs 1 chance at O'Connor where the striker could have drawn the keeper with a simple left to right pass but instead tried to chip and put the ball well over the cross bar.
Getting caught by Hudson aside, O'Connor had another great match, both keepers keeping their teams in the game in the scoreless first half with some big saves.
Giving up a height and weight disadvantage to her opposition, Ashley Cowley still contested everything and won back a number of turnovers, while Amy Haughian justified keeping her starting position from the previous away win over Massey University with a spirited effort.
Rebekah Ngapeka had an excellent match on defence, likewise getting turnovers and cutting down Hokowhitu's options, as the momentum swung both ways throughout.
Dana McClelland with her extra yard of pace and Alice Ireton with her passing skills came on the second half and tried to get something going with Golden Boot contender Vanya Apiata Hodgkinson – McClelland getting outside the defender's towards the right goal post on one occasion and being brought down from behind right before taking her shot in a move that could have justified a penalty.
Still, the official's whistle didn't blow on a couple of Whanganui's hard challenges for the ball either.
Hodgkinson did find the back of the net once, but the referee was already calling for offside as she was making her strike.
Despite Whanganui's loss, they still stayed safely in second spot on the table, although with a 10-point buffer, Hokowhitu have all but checked out heading into the third round of games.
The home side will regroup to face 2018 league champions Palmerston North Marist this weekend at Wembley, having twice previously drawn 2-2 with them.
In the other League games on Sunday, there was a minor upset as Taradale FC shook off their narrow loss to Whanganui to beat Marist 2-1 at Memorial Park, while Massey also rebounded from losing to Whanganui with a 6-2 victory over winless Feilding United.
And in the Horizons Premiership on Saturday, the GJ Gardner Homes Wanganui Athletic Reserves winning streak ended at two games after a 3-1 loss to Massey University at the school grounds.