There’s a chance we might be reawakening The Sportsman’s Curse here, reliving a difficult period during which everyone we praised went to pot and those we consigned to failure rose from the dead. But Chelsea are going to win the Women’s Super League this weekend and leave Manchester United just short of a remarkable title success.
But even if Emma Hayes’ Blues beat relegation-threatened Reading as expected to clinch a third straight league and cup double, this has still been an incredible season for United.
Less than five years on from being formed, the Red Devils have reached the Champions League aim that former manager Casey Stoney set for them in her first week in the job. More than that, they have battled beyond firm top-three fixtures Arsenal and Manchester City to give Chelsea the fright of their lives.
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To finish in the top two, Marc Skinner’s side have had to maintain an incredible pace in the WSL all season long. Heading into their final fixture away to Liverpool on Saturday, United have currently dropped just 10 points in the entire campaign, winning 17 of 21 games to date.
Skinner has harnessed the burgeoning qualities of United mainstays such as Katie Zelem, Millie Turner and Leah Galton, adding Maya Le Tissier to the backline to form the best centre-half partnership in the league alongside Turner. The likes of Lucia Garcia, Nikita Parris and Rachel Williams have also turned a talented team into an experienced, reliable squad.
They’ve also got a fair wad of Manchester United DNA about them, as underlined with their injury-time win against neighbours City on Sunday which clinched their European berth. That was the third time this season that they’d won a huge game after the 90th minute, with Alessia Russo’s stoppage-time goal at Arsenal crowning a fantastic comeback, Millie Turner’s winner at Aston Villa maintaining their Champions League push and then Garcia slamming home the all-important strike at the weekend.
Chuck in a first-ever visit to an FA Cup final, and a performance at Wembley which might have earned them more than a narrow defeat on another day, and this has been the kind of campaign United bosses will have had in mind when they decided in 2018 to finally re-establish a women’s team.
One can’t help but feel that this is just the start for United. Sure, there are question marks over the future of England striker Russo thanks to her being barely a month away from the expiry date on her contract. But if the club can continue to add the right kind of players into the requisite gaps in their squad then there is no reason why her 10 league goals this campaign cannot be matched by a replacement.
And in Galton they have the real stand-out player of 2022-23 anyway. The winger was a lesser-spotted member of the first team in that first season under Stoney in ’18-19, but has gradually developed into a goal-scoring assists machine, with 10 of the former and four of the latter this term being her best return yet for goal involvements. So coveted is she that former England boss Phil Neville and current national team head Sarina Wiegman have both made enquiries about her playing for the Lionesses.
But Galton remains steadfast in giving herself time off wherever the domestic calendar allows, meaning she will again say no to the possibility of a World Cup appearance this summer in Australia and New Zealand. And as she turns 29 on Wednesday, that can only be good news for United fans as she looks to give everything to the Red Devils cause in 2023-24 and the potential option season which follows on her contract.
So Chelsea’s fourth consecutive WSL title might be a formality now, with a win at the Madejski on Saturday almost nailed on, but don’t go banking on a fifth because United are the rising force in English women’s football, trophy or no trophy.