WSL Manchester derby could be season defining for both City & United

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Manchester City and Manchester United go head to head in a huge WSL derby on Friday night in a game that has the potential to define 2020/21 for both clubs as the campaign gears up for its final stretch and the title race nears its dramatic conclusion.

Friday night’s game is at City’s Academy Stadium on the Eithad Campus, with the reverse fixture at Leigh Sports Village in November finishing an action-packed 2-2.

On that occasion, City took a 2-0 lead in the first half through Chloe Kelly and Laura Coombs, only to let United back in when Tobin Heath netted a screamer and Kirsty Hanson equalised.

United were leading the WSL table at that stage, having won five games in a row beforehand and going on to win three more. City, meanwhile, had endured a challenging start to the season, despite adding five elite signings over the summer. But that derby proved to be a turning point.

Having found their feet later than expected, City have won all six in a row in the WSL since then, including a 2-1 victory over Arsenal last week that almost certainly ended the Gunners’ own title hopes and perhaps even killed off their chances of qualifying for the Champions League.

Ella Toone, Jess Sigsworth
Man Utd were leading the WSL earlier this season | Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images

City have climbed to within two points of United ahead of Friday’s clash and are only five points back from leaders Chelsea after their shock Brighton defeat last week – with a game currently in hand on each. They are very much the form team at this moment in time.

United’s fortunes have been slightly reversed. Casey Stoney’s side were arguably ahead of schedule in leading the WSL earlier in the season and appear to have successfully infiltrated the league’s ‘big three’ in only their second year as a top flight club, albeit not without major investment.

Tobin Heath
Tobin Heath has been a loss for Man Utd | James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images

United have replaced Arsenal in the title race, beating the Gunners for the first time ever back in November and they have gone toe to toe with City more than once since 2019. Games between the Manchester clubs have typically been very tight, with City snatching a 1-0 win in front of a record crowd at the Etihad Stadium on opening day last season, United winning a Conti Cup tie and City edging one in the FA Cup before the campaign was abandoned early.

But since Christmas, United have been pulled off top spot. Two defeats in the last four games have been massive blows to their title credentials, first losing ground in a narrow defeat against Chelsea and then failing to capitalise on an extremely rare Chelsea loss last weekend by losing themselves.

Losing the aforementioned Heath to injury hasn’t helped that. The American has made a huge difference this season, propelling United to that next level, but she was sat on the bench in trainers against Chelsea, a worrying sign at the time, and hasn’t appeared since.

With tiny margins involved and any minor mis-step majorly punished when the competition is so fierce, United need to win the derby to keep pace with Chelsea. Defeat not only gives Chelsea the chance to pull away when they face bottom club Bristol City on Sunday, it would mean City overtaking them in second place and becoming the new the chief challengers.

Chloe Kelly
Man City are the WSL’s in-form team now | Michael Regan/Getty Images

For Gareth Taylor’s City, victory is equally important. The incredible momentum they have built since the autumn would be wasted if they don’t win where it really counts now. They have already faced – and beaten – Arsenal home and away and the derby is their toughest remaining game until a final showdown with Chelsea at the Academy Stadium in late April.

They have to beat United in the first place to make that showdown happen, otherwise it knocks them back just far enough that Chelsea still retain control of all the cards.

Three points on Friday night would put City in close enough touching distance to Chelsea that, assuming both sides win their other remaining games which is not unexpected, the title race would be in their own hands by the time the two giants meet with only three games left to play. If not, it is United who will stay more firmly in the mix instead.

A draw in the derby isn’t enough for either club and only serves to help Chelsea.

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