Back In The Champions League Hunt, Man Utd Still Looking To Reach Stoney's Target

Marc Skinner has led the Reds to the brink of the top three at Christmas time
14:54, 20 Dec 2021

There were genuine concerns about the direction of Manchester United’s women’s team in the summer.

Casey Stoney, the only manager they’d ever known, was gone. Perhaps the brightest young star in the game, Lauren James, had left for Chelsea. Their American duo of Tobin Heath and Christen Press had moved on too, while Amy Turner and Jess Sigsworth, part of the United fabric from day one, had also fled the nest.

The departure of Stoney was most keenly felt. She was the leader who had built a squad from scratch, set a course, led them to the Championship title and taken them to the top of the Women’s Super League midway through their third season in existence.

“Players came in and we set our expectations from the start,” Stoney told the Coaches’ Voice of her early weeks at United in 2018. “We started speaking about the Champions League in week one, and we were still in the Championship.”

She never did quite make it to the Women’s Champions League with United before leaving for San Diego Wave, with an injury-hit second half of 2020-21 leading to them falling one point short of the top three. There were also other issues bubbling away in the background.

“Unfortunately, we were crucified by injuries at a really crucial time, which cost us,” she explained. “Our preparation for some games could have been better in terms of having to move around venues and stuff because we couldn’t train on certain pitches, and that did impact the team.”

It was that lack of provision which would eventually persuade her to move on, leaving fans devastated and the club with a huge hole to fill. Given the movement going on in the first-team squad, too, the summer of 2021 became a vital time in United’s short history.

But at Christmas they are back in the hunt for that first visit to the Champions League under new boss Marc Skinner following Sunday’s resounding 5-0 win over Aston Villa in probably their most convincing performance to date since the regime change at Leigh Sports Village. They are two points behind third-placed Tottenham Hotspur and have lost to only Chelsea and Arsenal so far in a season which has seen them look assured if unspectacular for the most part, and have netted nine unanswered goals in a week in league and cup matches to end the year.

“People talk about the momentum break now, but momentum is what you make of it,” Skinner told MUTV after the Villa win. “Where we’ve left it here, we pick up now in 2022 and we give absolutely everything. We play best on the edge, and in the last three games we’ve been absolutely on the edge. I’m thrilled with them and I can’t wait for the new year.”

There will still be tests ahead, with many expecting Manchester City – currently five points behind United with a game in hand – to improve dramatically once they start to get some of their injured stars back and at 100 per cent. But the fact that United are back in the shake-up at Christmas suggests that those fearing the worst last summer can take a breath of relief for now.

The likes of Ella Toone and Alessia Russo are now making attacking slots their own both for United and in the England squad, while captain Katie Zelem continues to dictate terms in midfield as she has throughout her Red Devils career. And with new additions Hannah Blundeel, Aoife Mannion and Martha Thomas becoming more and more a part of the furniture of late, this is still a club looking to reach the targets Casey Stoney set for it even after her premature departure.

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