The race for the WSL’s third and final Champions League place looks set to go to the wire as Manchester United and Manchester City battle neck and neck for European qualification.
United are keen to upset the established order of women’s football in England and play continental football for the first time, while City are seeking to get back into the Champions League after the disappointment of preliminary round elimination at the start of this season.
The WSL’s Champions League quota rose to three clubs in 2020, with United falling just short last season and getting pipped by Arsenal in the final weeks of the campaign.
This season, Arsenal and Chelsea are clear in first and second respectively. United have been firmly in the hunt for third again, but it is City who are coming up fast behind them as they make up for a woeful run by their usual standard in the first half of 2021/22, largely the result of an injury crisis that left the squad paper thin. Fifth place Tottenham will slip away with a difficult run-in.
Of the two Manchester clubs, only United will play on gameweek 18 this Sunday after City's match against Birmingham was postponed.
That could mean the three-point gap that was eradicated after United’s late draw at West Ham and City’s comfortable victory over Everton in their game in hand will be re-established. But it will also mean that City have a fresh game in hand to close it once more - it is a safe bet they will given Birmingham's struggles. Goal difference is the only thing really separating them and United.
City’s ability to run up score-lines – they have scored four or more in five of their 10 WSL wins so far – also suggests United’s two superior goal difference may not last much longer if they themselves cannot match that kind of output in the final stretch.
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Of the two clubs, City have the easier run-in, but both would be expected to win all of their next four games, starting with this weekend. That would push it to the final day of the season when United travel to Chelsea, who may well still need points in the title race, and City go to Reading.
While Marc Skinner’s United must face the current champions, Gareth Taylor’s City have the bonus of only having games left against clubs below them in the table.
Man Utd remaining WSL fixtures
Everton (H), Brighton (H), Aston Villa (A), West Ham (H), Chelsea (A)
Man City remaining WSL fixtures
West Ham (A), Leicester (H), Brighton (H), Reading (A), Birmingham (H)*
*to be rearranged
If City win all of their games as expected, it puts pressure on United to do something they have never done before and beat Chelsea. Had they not conceded in stoppage time against West Ham, they would have had more breathing room than they actually do.
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United fans, players and staff alike will hold onto hope that City won’t have it all their own way. Away fixtures at West Ham and Reading stand out as potential banana skins. The Hammers have already dented United’s hopes and actually beat City in the reverse fixture with them, while Reading stunned Chelsea with a 1-0 win in December and are a proven side on their day.
“At the end of the day, it’s a great narrative,” Skinner reflected, suggesting that the increasingly competitive nature of the WSL and the narrowing gaps between the best clubs and the rest will mean that nothing is going to be cut and dry until the last kick of the season.
“I’ve been in the WSL before when you go away to Chelsea, or Manchester City, and you’re going to lose the game and it’s a bit boring. We’re now in a position where any team on their day can gets results,” he explained.
What is certain is that you can’t afford to take your eyes off it.