Manchester United took another important step towards qualifying for the Champions League for the first time as they strengthened their grip on third place in the WSL table at the weekend.
The following day, Manchester City’s late win over Tottenham ensures the gap that United had opened up on Spurs by beating Reading 3-1 remained at three points.
From a United perspective, the ideal result between Spurs and City would have been a draw, with the latter still posing a major threat just five points behind and with a game in hand – they have also now played all of their toughest fixtures.
The United camp firmly maintain they are taking things one game at a time. This has been the consistent message from manager Marc Skinner in recent weeks, refusing to look too far ahead.
Leah Galton also echoed this sentiment after her starring performance against Reading.
“We're getting there [for the Champions League], we have to take it game by game,” she said.
Galton and the rest of the squad who were at the club last season know only too well how it can slip away. Casey Stoney’s United had led the WSL in the first half of the campaign and were unbeaten after 10 games, only for five defeats in their final 12 games to push them down into fourth.
Getting into the Champions League is the next big step in the progression of the club.
Aside from the glory of actually playing in the competition, the Champions League serves a greater purpose for United at what is fast becoming a critical juncture in their ongoing development.
They have largely recruited well since forming in 2018, with more recent captures like Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo in particular painting a very bright future. Others like Jackie Groenen are proven on the world stage, while Signe Bruun is a coup on loan from French giants Lyon.
Holding onto such players is going to be key if United are to realise their ambitions and soon challenge for trophies. Batlle and Russo are 22 and 23 respectively. They are already among the best in the WSL in their respective positions and yet also represent the long-term as well.
Equally, however, both are out of contract in the summer. United have options to extend their deals by another season and it is the intention to do that, but it will only delay the need to negotiate new long-term contracts for a few months.
Ultimately, the onus is on United to prove to every player in the squad, as well as every prospective signing, that they are a competitive force in the women’s game at home and abroad. The Champions League and everything it represents is the clearest way for the club to do that.
Batlle admitted just last week in an interview with Sky Sports that it is of huge importance to her.
“I have never played in the Champions League,” she said, “…so it would be a dream to reach it. It's something I really want to achieve in my career. We have the message more that we want to win every game. If we do that, we're going to get into the Champions League.”
The club has the potential to deliver that for her – she will have been a major part of it if it happens this season. But if they fall short, it increases the risk that other teams – both Barcelona and Chelsea have been specifically linked with the Spaniard – could offer her what United cannot.
The same would be true of Russo and any number of talented and ambitious players in the current squad who want and deserve the chance to play at the very highest level. If United want to persuade their best players to stay for the long-term, getting into the Champions League in the coming months sends the clearest message that they remain the right choice.