By Liz Owen
Carly Davies' classy finish was cancelled out by Bristol Academy Women as Villa Ladies lost 2-1 away from home in the Continental Cup.
A mature and organised performance by Villa was epitomised by Davies' first-half opener, but FA Women's Super League 1 side Bristol fought back in the second half through Natasha Harding and Grace McCatty to seal victory.
There were four changes made to the starting XI following last week's defeat at Reading Women, as Davies, Lauren Walker, Beth Merrick and Maddy Cusack came in for the suspended Katy Moran, cup-tied Katie Wilkinson, and unavailable duo Livy Fergusson and Sherry McCue.
Such a positive first-half show by Villa was aptly rewarded by a brilliant goal to match, as Davies broke the deadlock in sublime fashion four minutes before the interval.
Sarah Mayling worked hard to win the ball just outside Bristol's area and set up Davies, whose finish was a thing of beauty.
Glancing up to see Mary Earps off her line, Davies' sweet 20-yard strike swept past the 'keeper, curving into the bottom left-hand corner to give Villa the lead.
Bristol had to battle back to equalise on the hour mark, as Harding, who had been impressive throughout for the hosts, struck in similar fashion to Davies, albeit from closer range.
As Villa began to tire against a strong and fit Bristol side, the hosts capitalised through McCatty, whose deflected 74th-minute shot found a way past Caitlin Leach after Angharad James had re-introduced a cleared free-kick into the area.
It was harsh on Villa, who more than held their own against last year's FAWSL runners-up and this season's current third-spot occupants.
And they were dealt an early blow as right-back Hayley Crackle was stretchered off after only 12 minutes, with centre-back Dani Petrovic coming on in her place to nudge Maisie Baker out onto the right.
But Villa's back four, led impeccably by captain Jade Richards, were unfazed by the reshuffle and kept Bristol at bay during the first half.
Behind them, Leach put in a powerful and commanding display, denying her opponents on several occasions.
Her showreel included displaying lightning-quick reactions to deny Natalia Pablos Sanchon's angled close-range shot on the half-hour mark, before leaping to convincingly punch a Harding cross over the bar, and diving to her right to smother Sophie Ingle's low drive nine minutes before the interval.
In front of the defence sat a high midfield duo of Elisha N'Dow, playing in an unfamiliar position, and Cusack, both of whom celebrated England U19 call-ups this week.
They proved rock-solid and difficult to overcome in that role, with N'Dow in particular standing out on the pitch despite her tender 17 years of age, while Mayling and Alicia Robinson linked up well going forward.
Debuts were also handed to two more 17-year-olds, as Emma Baptiste - cousin of Tash - and Chloe Harper replaced Merrick and Baker in the second half.
Davies and Nikki Watts traded chances as the interval approached, before a determined Bristol side stepped up after the break.
Pablos Sanchon led her side's at times relentless attack, and although Mayling came close with a dipping effort seven minutes into the half, it wasn't long before Harding drew Bristol level.
Leach made further top-class stops from Pablos Sanchon and Harding but Villa were visibly beginning to tire, unable to match the consistent tempo of their higher-league counterparts.
After going behind late on, Villa refused to give up and continued to threaten through Mayling and Baptiste; they gave their all but it wasn't quite enough to salvage a point.
It means Villa remain pointless in the Continental Cup but after testing themselves against a top side, they will be eager for a repeat performance against Oxford in the same competiton next week.
Bristol Academy Women: Earps, Dykes, Yorston (Brown, 86), McCatty, Rose, James, Ingle, Del Rio, Watts, Harding, Pablos Sanchon (Cleverly, 89). Subs not used: Cleverly, Vega, Evans.
Villa Ladies: Leach, Crackle (Petrovic, 12), Walker, N'Dow, Baker (Harper, 77), Richards, Merrick (Baptiste E, 56), Cusack, Davies, Mayling, Robinson. Subs not used: Bryant, Myers, West, Baptiste T.