Manchester United were the WSL pace setters but City are hunting them

Manchester United were the pace setters in the WSL but Casey Stoney’s side are stuttering just as big-spenders City are finding form… as both teams chase down table toppers Chelsea – tonight’s derby is the biggest game between the two rivals so far

  • Manchester United were top of the WSL table for the first half of the season
  • Rivals Manchester City started slowly after bringing in big-money signings 
  • City can overtake the Red Devils with a victory in the derby on Friday
  • Both teams are chasing down champions Chelsea at the top of the table 

It will be only the fourth Manchester derby in the WSL but Friday night’s showdown at City’s Academy stadium is set to be the biggest we have seen so far.

Chelsea were the overwhelming favourites to win the league after beating United last month but their shock defeat by Brighton last weekend saw the title race blown wide open.

The Blues recovered to beat Arsenal 3-0 on Wednesday, putting the pressure back on the two Manchester clubs. Chelsea have 35 points from 14 games while United are second with 32. City are third on 30 points but have played a game less than both teams – and they have Chelsea to play at home later in the season. 

Gareth Taylor’s big-money signings are finally finding their rhythm, just as Casey Stoney’s side are starting to falter after their impressive start. Sportsmail assess both teams and the building rivalry they have created ahead of what could be a season-defining derby.

Friday night’s Manchester derby is set to be the biggest yet with United boss Casey Stoney (left) and City boss Gareth Taylor (right) hoping to close the gap on Chelsea

The season so far 

United were the pace setters at the start of the season, winning five of their first six games after holding champions Chelsea to a 1-1 draw on the opening day.

City, in contrast, were slow to get going. Gareth Taylor’s side were held to draws by Brighton and Reading and were beaten by 3-1 by Chelsea as their summer signings took time to find their rhythm. 

The turning point came in November when City beat Everton in last year’s FA Cup final – the first trophy of Taylor’s reign. Since then his team have won seven of their last eight league games, scoring 35 goals in the process.

The only points City have dropped since their defeat by Chelsea in October came in the reverse Manchester derby. Goals from Chloe Kelly and Laura Coombs gave Taylor’s side a 2-0 lead at half time but United levelled through Tobin Heath and Kirsty Hanson with the game ending in a 2-2 draw.

United went into that game as favourites but it’s City who look to have the advantage this time around with the Red Devils having dropped vital points since Christmas. 

City raced into a 2-0 lead in the reverse fixture after goals from Chloe Kelly and Laura Coombs

Tobin Heath and Kirsty Hanson levelled in the second half with the game ending in a 2-2 draw

City’s signings showing their value

Two Champions League winners and two US internationals arrived at City in the summer as well as England winger Chloe Kelly. 

Kelly has been in outstanding form of late, providing five assists in her last three games to take her tally to eight for the season – the highest in the division. 

Lucy Bronze, winner of Best FIFA Women’s player last year, and Alex Greenwood joined from Lyon and have also been regular fixtures in the starting XI. 

US World Cup winners Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle have had contrasting fortunes. Mewis has been extremely influential in the heart of City’s midfield whereas Lavelle’s game time has been limited due to injuries and the form of City’s other wide players.

Lucy Bronze was one of several big-name signings to arrive at City in the summer window

Chloe Kelly was also signed from Everton and has been in fantastic form recently

Another American arrived in January – centre back Abby Dahlkemper. The 27-year-old was put straight into the starting XI by Taylor and has looked calm and assured alongside Steph Houghton. 

Lauren Hemp has also been like a new signing with two goals and three assists since returning from injury in December. 

United don’t quite have the budget of their rivals, as Stoney was quick to point out in her press conference this week.

‘Look at the depth in their squad, the money they’ve spent, they’re really hitting form now,’ the manager said.

‘I think when you can start Rose Lavelle, Lucy Bronze, Abby Dahlkemper, Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp, when you can make those sort of signings and you have that budget it obviously does make a huge impact. You’ve got the world’s best playing in your backline.’ 

US World Cup winners Sam Mewis (left) and Rose Lavelle (righ) have had contrasting fortunes since joining in the summer

United’s stuttering form

The Red Devils were top at Christmas but have always had Chelsea on their tails with Emma Hayes’ side having a game in-hand for most of the season.

The Blues won the title clash between the two sides last month but their shock defeat at home to Brighton (which ended their run of 33 WSL games unbeaten) gave their challengers a chance to close gap.

City capitalised with a 2-1 victory over Arsenal but United were beaten 2-0 by Reading – their first home defeat in over a year.

Both goals came from set pieces, something City are particularly strong at. Taylor’s side have scored 10 times from set plays this season which is the most of any team in the division.  

United suffered a 2-0 defeat by Reading last weekend which put a dent in their title credentials 

Going forward, United undoubtedly miss Heath who has the potential to be a match-winner. Lauren James, who has been in and out of the team because of injuries, has also been a big miss.  

Both players have been ruled out of Friday’s clash meaning United will look to Ella Toone, Leah Galton and Christen Press to provide their attacking spark.

Like Heath, Press is a US World Cup winner but injuries and illness has so far prevented her from having the impact fans were perhaps expecting. 

Toone and Galton are the leading scorers with six goals each and the former will be buoyed by her England call-up earlier this week. United, who are the lowest scorers of the top four, will need to be more clinical if they are to come out on top on Friday.

Christen Press has struggled to have the same impact as her fellow American Tobin Heath 

Building rivalries  

United are only in their third season as a club while City’s relaunch and alignment with the men’s club came in 2014 – meaning the Manchester rivalry is still relatively new in the women’s game.

However, both sets of fans are passionate with United’s noisy ‘Barmy Army’ travelling up to watch matches before the pandemic. City are also well supported. 

‘The Manchester United fans are incredible,’ former player and BT Sport pundit Siobhan Chamberlain told Sportsmail.

‘The barmy army as they call themselves, they add a different dimension to the game. There’s always been supporters in women’s football but I don’t think there’s been a supporters group like Manchester United.

The Red Devils are well supported with fans filling their Leigh Sports Village stadium with flags 

‘They’ve got songs for every single player, they’ve got flags round the ground – it just makes you feel so valued and a part of the team and it gives you that buzz to give that little bit extra on the pitch so for them to be missing will hurt the team.’ 

The absence of fans meant Alex Greenwood’s return to Leigh Sports Village in November was a bit more low key than it could have been. The England left back left United to join Lyon in 2019 but signed for rivals City in the summer – much to the dismay of the Red half of the city. 

Heath also stoked the fires ahead of the previous fixture, proudly affirming that ‘Manchester is Red’ and that City is ‘not a big club’ in an interview with the New York Times. 

The US international will be sorely missed on Friday but United will have to channel that passion if they are to prove they are indeed the biggest club in the city.

Heath’s passion and presence on the pitch has been a big miss for United in recent weeks

This season BT Sport is showing more Barclays FA Women’s Super League matches than ever before. Watch Man City v Man Utd on BT Sport 2 from 6.30pm on Friday 12th February. 

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