FAWSL Week 5: Manchester Dramatics…

Honours ended even between Manchester United and ten-player Manchester City in a cracking contest at the Leigh Sports Village. Despite having the better of the first half, things weren’t looking good for City when makeshift full back Georgia Stanway was sent off for a high challenge on Leah Galton. But the visitors went on to take a lead into the break through Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw’s header. United turned things around in three second half minutes through substitute Lucy Staniforth and striker Alessia Russo, but Ellen White ensured a share of the spoils with ten minutes left, converting at close range after Jess Park’s shot crashed off the cross bar…

Manchester United 2-2 Manchester City

Spoiler alert… Manchester City do score in this match.

United boss Marc Skinner made just one change to the starting eleven that had dispatched Birmingham City in week, four with right-sided forward Kirsty Hanson coming replacing Lucy Staniforth. This adjusted their shape to a 4-2-3-1.

City’s injury woes have been well documented throughout the season with Ellie Roebuck, Karen Bardsley, Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Esme Morgan, Hayley Raso, Chloe Kelly and Vicky Losada all unavailable. Manager Gareth Taylor dropped Jess Park and Ellen White to the bench with ‘Bunny’ Shaw leading the front line and attacking midfielder Stanway coming in as a right-back.

Despite defeat to West Ham last weekend Jill Scott and Alex Greenwood continued as the central defensive partnership.

The opening exchanges were cagey but City looked brighter on the ball. In the 13th minute Caroline Weir and Lauren Hemp combined down the left to fashion a cross for Janine Beckie. The Canadian connected well on the half-volley, but keeper Mary Earps acrobatically pawed it past her right-hand post.

Three minutes later Hemp nodded Filippa Angeldal’s clipped delivery from the right goalward but centre back Maria Thorisdottir was perfectly positioned to clear off the line.

Around the half hour mark the teams traded distance efforts. Hemp cut in from the left but fired over from 20-yards. At the other end, Hanson registered United’s first shot on target, shooting on the turn from 18-yards but failing to trouble Karima Benameur-Taieb.

Before the game, City boss Gareth Taylor had alluded to some unspecified moments where decisions hadn’t gone his team’s way in previous matches. So, his frustration levels must have maxed out in the 35th minute when Stanway received a straight red for clattering Leah Galton’s thigh with her studs up.

There was plainly no intention to hurt – indeed the 22-year old immediately acknowledged how bad her challenge was – but it was very high and very late, which left referee Rebecca Welch no option but to send her off.

So, down to ten, in a Manchester Derby – following a terrible campaign start – incredibly the visitors reacted by taking the lead three minutes later with a goal of real quality.

A neat interchange between Hemp, Weir, and Keira Walsh on the left presented Demi Stokes with a crossing opportunity. The full-back swung in a perfect delivery and Shaw arrived to power past Earps.

Just before the break Hemp was United’s tormentor again, swinging inside Ona Batlle and crossing to the back post for Angeldal, but the Swede couldn’t get her effort on target.

Into the second half and Marc Skinner’s side needed to improve in the attacking third, particularly given their player advantage. Hannah Blundell had a sight of goal from the edge of the box but drove into teammate Jackie Groenen.

City remained a threat on the break, especially when the Red Devils were careless in possession. Hemp burst past two defenders in the 56th minute and drew a fine reaction stop out of Earps at her near post.

Sixty seconds later Ella Toone nearly got the home side back on terms when she Cruyff-turned Weir on the edge of the penalty box but couldn’t beat Benameur, who made her best diving save of the afternoon.

With his opponent’s makeweight backline looking increasingly stubborn, United boss Skinner decided some tactical adjustments were required to shift the pattern of the game.

Midfielder Lucy Staniforth replaced ineffective winger Hanson in the 67th minute as the hosts chose to load up their midfield.

It paid dividends just five minutes later, although not perhaps in the way anyone would have expected. Blundell played a left-wing corner short to Toone and the England international drove the ball into the near post where Staniforth cleverly flicked it off her heel into the net.

Scream if you want to go faster… Lucy Staniforth (left) and Alessia Russo celebrate United’s equaliser.

The hosts should have grabbed the lead by the 74th minute when Russo picked Greenwood’s pocket and played Galton into space behind the City backline. The winger uncharacteristically scuffed a hurried effort well wide.

Instead United fans had to wait a whole minute more to see their side take the lead. Toone and Blundell combined on the left and the former Chelsea full-back crossed for Alessia Russo in defensive traffic. Russo stumbled over her initial control but recovered, got the ball out of her feet and beat Benameur with a low drive inside the left-hand post.

Taylor responded with a substitution of his own, bringing forward Jess Park into the fray for the more conservative Angeldal on 76 minutes. It took the youngster just three minutes to make her impact.

Weir found Park in space 25-yards from goal and she arrowed a drive towards the top left-hand corner. Earps made a superb fingertip save to push the ball on to the crossbar, but as it cannoned towards the ground it clipped the keeper’s leg, slowing the ball down sufficiently for another substitute, Ellen White to slam home on the rebound.

By this point 2-2 was starting to look like a fair result, but both sides had another chance to win it.

Ellen White glanced wide in the 82nd minute after another seemingly impossible by-line delivery from Hemp. United’s opportunity came in stoppage time when Katie Zelem crossed from the right but Galton couldn’t guide her header on target.

FUN FACT: This was only the second draw of the season to date. A point earned, however, would not improve City’s position in the WSL table, while United would move above Chelsea into third – for 24-hours at least.

This was always going to be an encounter where the match-up between wingers and full-backs could hold the key to success.

Hemp received the Player of the Match award, and rightly so. City had identified that their opponents have a tendency to leave Ona Batlle unprotected at right-back and the young Spanish international simply couldn’t cope with Hemp in 1v1 duels.

Player of the Match – Manchester City’s left winger Lauren Hemp.

City – like many teams before them – doubled up on Leah Galton, so the emphasis for Marc Skinner’s side should have been to isolate Kirsty Hanson with City’s slower left-back Demi Stokes. Instead, Hanson couldn’t get into the match, while Stokes was free to push on (particularly in the first period) and make overloads with Weir and Hemp – getting her first assist of the season in the process.

“I think there’s a slight disappointment we didn’t win it. It’s not easy to take. It was a rollercoaster and when you’re staring at a loss, reluctantly it’s a fair point. The circumstances were our own doing – seeing the challenge, you can see why it’s a red card but we showed great spirit. I take my hat off to the players. I thought we showed great character, spirit and determination and when you look at who was missing, I thought the girls did great today. To go behind like we did and fight back was fantastic. The players deserve great credit and we intend to build on that.”

Gareth Taylor, Manager, Manchester City, via mancity.com 9/10/2021

Gareth Taylor has got to be pleased with a draw given the adversity going into the game, and then the challenges faced during it. But some City fans remain sceptical about his tactical approach generally.

Certainly it’s a riddle only he can answer why he plays Jill Scott (a midfielder who was loaned to Everton last season) alongside Alex Greenwood (a left-back by trade) when central defenders Ruby Mace and Alanna Kennedy are sat on the bench. Although in fairness it should be acknowledged that both Scott and (particularly) Greenwood gave good displays on the day.

City have dropped eleven points in their opening five games. That means that their WSL title aspirations are pretty much in tatters already. But this match should reignite some belief that they are competitive regardless of how many important players are side-lined.

As the women’s game heads into another international break, Taylor and his players can take stock and hope to get a couple more back before they resume WSL fixtures with a visit to basement-dwellers Leicester City on Sunday 7th November.

United Head Coach Marc Skinner: “Lots of positives, but lots of things we can learn from…”

The Red Devils salvaged a 2-2 draw with City from a losing position last season. They eventually wrestled control of this one – albeit for just a few minutes against ten – and may be disappointed they couldn’t hold on. But in terms of facing the stronger teams, tying with their successful cross-city rivals will still feel like a massive step-up from the drubbing that Chelsea gave them two weeks ago.

On their return from the international break United’s players can look forward to an M6/M1 road trip to high-flying Tottenham Hotspur. This match is also on Sunday 7th November.

ADDENDUM: Both Manchester clubs will be in Conti Cup group action ahead of the World Cup qualifying period. Manchester City host Everton on Wednesday 13th October. United go to Durham the following evening.

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