United defeat Arsenal to extend WSL lead

Manchester United welcomed Arsenal to Leigh Sports Village on Wednesday evening, with Marc Skinner’s side boosted following their progression to the FA Cup Final last weekend. The Red Devils survived an early scare against Brighton, and now have a Wembley final to look forward to – they’ll meet Emma Hayes’ Chelsea under the arch next month.

Arsenal have been successful in cup competitions too recently – despite a first-leg loss against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, Jonas Eidevall’s side emerged victorious over the Germans at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners now face a trip to Wolfsburg, where they’ll look to take the lead before returning to a near-capacity crowd at the Emirates on May 1st. Wolfsburg recently showed that they are a level above Bayern though, as they cruised to a 5-0 win in Die Liga – so it’s certainly going to be an interesting fixture in North London.

However, Wednesday night’s clash was just as crucial for both teams involved. Ahead of kickoff, United sat at the top of the table – just one point ahead of Chelsea, who hold a game in hand over the Reds. Arsenal sit third, three points behind Marc Skinner’s side – so a win would draw them level with the current leaders.

MUN: Earps; Blundell, Mannion, Le Tissier, Batlle; Zelem, Ladd; Galton, Toone, Parris; Russo

ARS: Zinsberger; Wubben-Moy, Wienroither, Rafaelle, Maritz; Wälti, Williamson, Maanum; Kühl, Blackstenius, Pelova

The absence of Kim Little meant that Leah Williamson slotted into Arsenal’s midfield, moving up the pitch from her preferred role in the heart of the defence. The England captain has shown that she’s more than capable in the engine room though, filling in there on numerous occasions so far this season. The Gunners were also without Katie McCabe, who misses out due to a suspension.

Victoria Pelova’s cross in from the right flank could have caused problems early on, though it was dealt with well by the United defence – who then launched an attack themselves, though the final ball to Leah Galton was sub-par and intercepted well by the Gunners. Leah Williamson looked to pick out Pelova again on the right wing, but Hannah Blundell did well to win back possession.

Galton has been in superb form as of late, and looked to be United’s best attacking outlet early on – receiving the ball on the wing and drifting a cross towards goal that looked as if it could have crept over the head of Manuela Zinsberger. She wasn’t that lucky though, and it settled on the roof of the net.

In potentially a huge blow for both Arsenal and England, Leah Williamson was forced off through injury with just fifteen minutes played. The deputising midfielder went down on the half-way line, and limped off – seemingly in severe discomfort – following on-pitch treatment. She was replaced by Gio Quieroz. Not only is that devastating for Arsenal, it could spell real danger for Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses ahead of this summer’s World Cup.

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Blackstenius looked to chase onto a ball over the top, and found herself inside the penalty area in a race against Mary Earps – but it was the United ‘keeper that won the dash for the ball, smothering it to bring an end to the Arsenal chance.

United looked to test Zinsberger from a free-kick on the right, but the ball sailed out to Aoife Mannion on the far side of the box. The defender’s effort was drilled wide of the near post though, and the best chance of the game so far had been wasted.

Blackstenius looked to chase onto a ball over the top soon after, and found herself inside the penalty area in a race against Mary Earps – but it was the United ‘keeper that won the dash for the ball, smothering it to bring an end to the Arsenal chance.

Alessia Russo could have been through on goal with thirty minutes played as she received the ball on the halfway line, but in her bid to battle past two Arsenal defenders, she was judged to have committed a foul. Jonas Eidevall’s side surged up the pitch, finding Blackstenius – who was correctly flagged offside.

Frida Maanum was the next player to require treatment, tumbling to the ground just inside her own half. It was seemingly an issue with her right leg, though she was fine to continue after some manipulation from the physio team.

A long ball over the top found Ella Toone, who then played the ball to Hayley Ladd in midfield. The Welsh international sent Russo through on the left, but her cross into the box was cleared well by Lotte Wubben-Moy. United had certainly shown signs of promise; most of them on the left flank.

Maanum found herself free on the left flank just minutes before half-time, and decided to fire a low driven shot towards the near post – Earps was able to smother though, and initiated a United attack that was brought to an abrupt end as Hannah Blundell was hauled to the ground. The left-back was okay to continue though, and United had a free-kick to commence five minutes of injury time. Katie Zelem’s delivery caused a goalmouth scramble, but ultimately the Gunners were able to deal with the danger.

United seemed desperate for a goal before the break, as both Ella Toone and Hayley Ladd delivered balls into the box – the resolute Arsenal defence were able to deal with every challenge the Red Devils posed though, until Alessia Russo fired home the opener on the stroke of half-time. The ball in from Nikita Parris on the right wing was perfectly placed for the striker to drill it past Manuela Zinsberger, settling in the bottom left corner to give Marc Skinner’s side a crucial lead at the interval.

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There’d have been vastly different team talks at the interval, as Marc Skinner’s side managed to find the back of the net with their first shot on target. That goal had been the difference in a lacklustre first half, with a rather strange atmosphere following Leah Williamson’s withdrawal.

Perhaps unimpressed with his side’s performance in the first half, Eidevall made two changes ahead of the final 45 minutes – with Laura Wienroither and Kathrine Kühl making way for Jen Beattie and Steph Catley. The Gunners looked to bring themselves level almost immediately, but Stina Blackstenius’ effort resembled Mannion’s first-half strike and trickled wide of the near post.

Blackstenius could have made amends for that woeful miss though, receiving the ball in a crowded box soon after – but the angle was awkward, and she never really got her footing right to be able to hit any meaningful effort towards Earps.

Arsenal’s pressure in the second half certainly sparked some life back into the crowd at Leigh Sports Village, with the 6658 fans in attendance beginning to make themselves heard once again. The Gunners had been the better team since they re-emerged after half-time, wasting a golden opportunity from a free-kick that flew over a crowded penalty area and out for a goal kick.

Victoria Pelova seemed sure to score with around fifteen minutes left to play, but the winger failed to control the ball. Arsenal were able to recycle the chance though, eventually floating in a fine cross towards Stina Blackstenius at the near post – though Earps rose highest to claim it. In doing so, the ‘keeper appeared to have injured herself. Alessia Russo made way for Rachel Williams during the stoppage in play; Earps was fine to continue. Gio Queiroz was also replaced, with Jodie Taylor introduced as her replacement.

There was yet more disruption to what had been a stop-start affair under the lights in the outskirts of Manchester, as Manuela Zinsberger required attention – she too was fine to play on. Jen Beattie also needed to be assessed by the medical team following her challenge on Rachel Williams, which she looked lucky to escape from without a booking.

The Gunners were awarded a free-kick in a very threatening position after Jodie Taylor’s flicked ball struck the arm of Ona Batlle – and at first glance, the decision to award the foul seemed harsh. Frida Magnum’s effort sailed well over the crossbar without really threatening Earps. Nikita Parris and Ella Toone made way for Martha Thomas and Millie Turner following that set piece, and it looked as if United were ready to park the bus for the final few minutes.

Seven minutes of injury time followed, allowing Arsenal plenty of time to take something from the match. They came close through Blackstrenius once more, but a superb close-range block was enough to avert the danger and keep United ahead of this closely contested affair. Jonas Eidevall’s side did manage to win a corner soon after, which was played short before inevitably finding Blackstenius again – she wasn’t able to divert it home.

There was one final chance for Arsenal following yet another corner, as Earps’ punched clearance fell to Zinsberger who had ventured upfield – but the ‘keeper sent her effort marginally wide!

Russo’s opener at the end of the first half guided the hosts to another WSL win, as they now extend their league at the top of the table. The result is much worse for Arsenal, though it is Leah Williamson that will be at the forefront of every Gunner’s mind until the extent of her injury is confirmed.