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West Ham Utd moved to the top of the Southern Division with a convincing 4-1 win over Cardiff City at Thurrock.
A Gemma Shepherd hat-trick was the highlight of an impressive win over the Welsh visitors but there were many fine performances throughout the Hammers team. Cardiff have yet to register a league point this season but had patches in both halves when they were able to mount concerted pressure on the home goal. However they were always vulnerable defensively as Shepherd and her attacking colleagues were in fine form.
It was the visitors who started the better, forcing three early corners, from one of which Terri Beddows powered in a header which was scrambled off the line. The Hammers had a shot from Emma Thomas into the side netting but Cardiff's Lisa Bird forced a good save from Toni-Anne Wayne with a 15-yard shot on 21 minutes and the first quarter had been slightly in the Welsh team's favour.
Shepherd's first goal came from a surprise 30-yard lofted shot on 27 minutes which dipped over Rhian Nokes. Wayne set up the next chance with a pinpoint clearance which sent Becky Merritt clean through on goal, Nokes saved well from Carly Roache, then tipped over another Shepherd shot as West Ham dominated.
The crucial second goal arrived right on half time just after City defender Ellie Davies had been forced off with an injury. Cardiff lost the ball in midfield and Emma Thomas outpaced the defence and finished from close in.
West Ham started the second half as they had left off and Shepherd scored an excellent third, volleying in an inviting cross from Jess Barling on 53 minutes. The home team were attacking from all angles and three times forced one-on-ones with Nokes in quick succession.
Twice the Welsh international keeper denied the home forwards but on 62 minutes Shepherd completed her hat-trick and made the game safe from ten yards with the defenders again outpaced.
Cardiff finally started to create chances but Bird was frustrated by another good save by Wayne on 69 minutes . Shepherd was denied a fourth by a fine diving save by Nokes who also saved well from substitute Sinead Redford.
The Cardiff consolation came at the end of their best period since the opening five minutes, as Wayne saved from Danielle Broadhurst, whose corner was headed back by Beddows for Natasha Harding to nod in from close range on 80 minutes. The home team played out the final ten minutes comfortably to regain top spot in the league from Keynsham Town.
West Ham were without Nina Downham but created a hatful of chances and were solid in defence, looking like genuine title contenders. Cardiff looked good at times but will need to tighten up in defence and midfield to escape the lower end of a very competitive league.
West Ham Utd: Toni-Anne Wayne, Jo Woodgates, Jess Barling, Natalie Grafton, Emma Thomas, Clare Rogers, Rosey Sullivan, Carly Roache, Jo Wosahlo, Gemma Shepherd, Becky Merritt. Subs: Ruby Southgate, Sinead Redford, Maddie Thomas.
Cardiff City: Rhian Nokes, Amie Lea, Lauren Townsend, Terri Beddows, Ellie Davies, Danielle Broadhurst, Rachel Cullen, Sophie Ingle, Natasha Harding, Nicola Cousins, Lisa Bird. Subs: Zoe Atkins, Elie Smith, Cherie Beasant.
(Report by Patrick Higgins)
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