Manchester United no longer have power over their own destiny in the ongoing battle with Manchester City for a place in the WSL top three and Champions League qualification.
City have been coming hard and fast, winning six in a row in the WSL to reach a point whereby they had actually leapfrogged United to go into third place on Sunday afternoon.
With the Red Devils not in action until later on away at Aston Villa, a club against whom they had scored 27 goals in just five previous meetings – including a 5-0 thrashing in the reverse fixture in December, the pressure was on respond with a win of their own.
For Marc Skinner’s side, this was the first of three remaining ‘cup finals’ to finish the season. Win them all, and it wouldn’t matter what City do, Champions League football would be heading to Leigh Sports Village next season for the very first time.
Any slip ups, however, and United would lose their remaining control.
The advantage had arguably already gone to City when West Ham scored a 92nd minute equaliser to cancel out what looked like it was going to be a narrow 1-0 win decided by Ella Toone in mid-March. That game erased United’s cushion and, all else being equal, meant they were more than likely going to have to beat a Chelsea side fighting for the title on the final day of the season.
Now, after dropping points against Villa, even victory away at Chelsea won’t necessarily be enough, with United relying on unlikely favours from Brighton, Birmingham or Reading to take points off City.
There are no guarantees in the refreshingly increasingly competitive world of WSL football, but City failing to win any of those three games would be a tall order given their form and momentum.
United moved back to third in the table thanks to their single point from the Aston Villa draw. But City’s game in hand is now season-defining for both clubs. If they win against Brighton next weekend and then beat Birmingham on Wednesday 4 May, they will go into the final weekend of the season two points clear of United in third place and firmly in the driving seat for the Champions League.
Yet the fact that United have once again got so close to challenging much more established teams is still an achievement of sorts. Huge expectations mean it is sometimes easy to forget that the squad was only reformed in 2018 and has only been a top flight club since 2019 – the 2021/22 campaign is only the club’s second full season in the WSL.
Last summer’s delayed appointment of Skinner and minimal preparation or pre-season also serves to put the season into context. The new boss, only nine months into the job, is still working to implement his own ideas on a squad that was largely assembled by someone else. There have nonetheless been positive signs of progress in spurts of form, but time is a valuable tool.
Skinner has been clear that this season is a ‘massive learning experience’ for the players, regardless of the final outcome. Ultimately, despite the disappointment of (likely) falling short in the race for the top three for the second year in a row, it will still serve them well for the future as they go again better prepared to make it happen next season instead.