That’s a wrap, then. On a historic day at Old Trafford, United get a record win in front of a record crowd. Having considerably improved their goal difference, this could be an important match in the title race. While Arsenal still have a chance to pull ahead with a win against Everton, for the moment, United are top of the table.
Asked to explain Batlle’s goal celebration, where she tapped the end of her nose with the palm of her hand, Toone laughs. “No idea [what it means], but whatever floats your boat. I’m sure it’ll mean something to her! But she played amazing today. Every week she puts in really consistent performances for us so I’m glad she got her goal at Old Trafford.”
Toone is on good form in her post-match interview, having taken Sky Sports’ player of the match award. “We’re glad we can go out and put on big performances like we did today, but I think our standards are that high that we’re probably not 100% happy with that performance, we want more from ourselves and we demand so much more. But we’re really happy with the three points.”
Asked about her link-up play with Russo who, along with Galton, benefitted from one of Toone’s assists, she says: “She makes me look good a lot of the time. I know if I stick it in to her she’ll get hold of it. I think we’ve got a good relationship on and off the pitch … we link up really well.”
Let’s take a look at that goal from Batlle. There’s nothing quite like a strike which goes in off the underside of the bar, is there? One of the greatest aesthetic joys in football.
It’s an emphatic victory for United, who have their biggest WSL win at Old Trafford. Villa showed a few glimmers of promise here and there, but were ultimately blunt in front of goal where their opponents were razor-sharp. Batlle was lethal marauding forwards, Toone showcased all her skills as a playmaker and Russo was a dominant presence up top. All in all, United can be satisfied with a job well done.
She’s barely been on the pitch for five minutes, but Williams has a goal. Batlle, who has a strong claim for player of the match alongside Toone and Russo, gets in behind on the right and tees up the substitute to scoop the ball into the back of the net.
90+1 min A sharp passing move ends with Zelem lining one up on the edge of the area, but she can’t get the requisite power behind the shot and Hampton gathers.
86 min It’s a double change for United, with Toone and Galton leaving the field and being replaced by Rachel Williams and Vilde Bøe Risa.
84 min Ward makes another substitution, Laura Blindkilde swapping out for Olivia McLoughlin.
There are 30,196 at Old Trafford today which, as predicted, is a new record for Manchester United Women.
82 min Blundell plays a fantastic ball through to Galton, who is brought down by Anna Patten on the edge of the area. Galton leaps up and fires past Hampton but the referee, Louise Saunders, has already blown up for the foul. She shows Patten a yellow card, holding up her hands to the United players apologetically.
78 min Skinner makes another change with Lucía García coming on for Russo, who’s been outstanding.
That’s the goal of the game. Zelem, Thomas and Batlle combine out wide on the right, with the latter ending up with the ball inside the area. From a tight angle, she thunders a shot in off the underside of the crossbar. That’ll do it.
73 min After a slightly ragged spell in defence, United slow the tempo. Lehmann and Daly are still trying to make something happen for Villa, but in vain.
68 min Big chance! Toone chips a ball over the top to Thomas. She crosses to Galton at the far post, but she overplays it and attempts a return ball with the goal at her mercy. Thomas gets it back and gets a belated shot on target, but Hampton gets down low and makes the save.
65 min All of a sudden, Villa have come to life. Pacheco is the latest player to go close, sending a volley spinning wide.
63 min Skinner turns to his bench, bringing off Parris for Martha Thomas.
62 min Daly has a go from distance, but Earps makes the save. Lehmann then dispossesses Zelem high up the pitch and has a crack herself, but Earps repeats the trick and pushes it wide.
69 min Russo drives forwards and releases Hannah Blundell to her left. She plays in Zelem, but she’s forced to go backwards. She recycles the ball and United get back on the front foot. Parris drives into a gap in Villa’s defence and dinks a cross into the box, but Hampton plucks it out of the air.
57 min Ward makes her first substitution, bringing off Gregory for Emily Gielnik.
55 min Villa’s forwards buzz around the box, but United simply swat them away. Russo drops deep to help out with the team’s defensive duties, shepherding a loose ball out of play.
It’s all over now. Parris plays in Toone, who tees up Russo with a perfectly weighted pass. She strokes the ball home with ease.
48 min Zelem plays in Toone with a lovely faded pass, but she’s narrowly offside.
46 min What a chance! Toone nips in behind and tries to square to Russo, but the pass runs just behind her teammate.
We’re back in action at Old Trafford. Will United see out the win?
Here’s Zelem’s goal, in case you missed it. United’s build-up play has been generally excellent, with Batlle excelling in her attacking role at right-back and Russo disrupting Villa’s defence with her aerial threat. Toone has also been superb as United’s creative brain in attacking midfield.
While United fully deserve their lead, Villa were much improved in the 15 minutes leading up to the break. It would take a heroic effort for them to get back on level terms, but they’re not entirely out of this game.
44 min United win a free kick out wide and Russo gets on the end of it, forcing a save from Hampton. The ball falls for Hayley Ladd and she’s challenged by Gregory, who appears to catch her opponent in the box. No penalty is forthcoming and, amid a chaotic scramble, United have a couple more shots blocked. Maya Le Tissier goes for goal from the edge of the area, but Hampton saves once more.
42 min No goal! Dali clips a lovely ball over the top to Gregory, who gets a shot on target. Earps can only parry the ball into the path of Lehmann, who thumps in from close range. Much to her frustration, however, the flag goes up for offside.
41 min Russo gets into a running battle with Danielle Turner and both end up in a heap on the edge of the area, but the foul goes Villa’s way.
38 min Lehmann shrugs off Parris shoulder-to-shoulder, gets into the box and lines one up, but her shot is blocked and spins away harmlessly.
34 min Villa win a corner, but Earps punches clear. The visitors come back at United, Lehmann sending a dangerous ball into the box which runs through for Gregory. She whips a shot at goal, but Earps pushes it round the post.
30 min Russo glances a header just wide of the post. United are in the ascendancy now.
Oosh! Russo collects Batlle’s throw-in, then threads through Toone. She, in turn, sends Galton clear, with her teammate thrashing a shot past Hampton and into the back of the net.
Adam K writes in. “Lots of great players on show, but I have to say I just love watching Alessia Russo. She has an almost Haaland-esque inevitability and self-belief about her that make her equally appealing to watch and – I’d imagine – terrifying to play against.”
24 min Dali darts into a pocket of space and has a crack at goal, but her shot is deflected out for a corner. United clear their lines with relative ease.
22 min Lehmann has another go, rounding a tackle from Parris before cutting inside and sending a curling shot into the waiting arms of Mary Earps. That’s Villa’s first shot of the match.
19 min Alisha Lehmann tears up the left flank, but is dispossessed by an inch-perfect slide tackle from Batlle.
16 min Galton hurdles a tackle out wide, then gallops infield. She spreads the ball to Parris, whose shot is blocked.
United open the scoring with an excellent team goal. Toone zips forwards in midfield, releasing Batlle on the overlap to her right. Her cross falls for Alessia Russo, who bundles it towards goal. Hampton makes the initial save and Villa almost get it clear, only for Zelem to apply the finishing touch from close range.
10 min Decent chance! Leah Galton gets in behind on the left and dinks a cross into the middle of the box which almost falls for Nikita Parris, only for Pacheco to get a crucial touch and flick it away.
8 min United win a free kick out wide on the right and Katie Zelem steps up, but her delivery into the box fails to beat the first defender.
6 min Villa have their first sustained spell in the final third. Freya Gregory gets a cross into the box, which is cleared. Mayumi Pacheco wins the ball high up the pitch and gets it back to Gregory but, once again, her cross is belted away.
3 min Ella Toone makes inroads down the left, Ona Batlle makes a foray forwards on the right, but Villa’s defence holds firm.
We’re under way in Manchester. Daly gets things started.
There are five minutes to go until kick off. The atmosphere at Old Trafford is building nicely.
Our first bit of correspondence has dropped, from Tor Turner. “Big questions about how Villa will perform in the kind of huge playground that is Old Trafford. I can’t see United losing today. Daly is a phenomenal player, but United – and yes I am biased as I’ve supported United since I was a boy – just have something extra. All talk of Russo, Toone and Daly pre-game but don’t count out Parris, I wouldn’t be surprised if she opens the scoring.”
Here’s a fun stat: Rachel Daly has been involved in 75% of Villa’s goals this season. She has 10 goals in all competitions, compared to two for her nearest competitor in Kenza Dali.
Speaking to Sky Sports before kick off, Carla Ward, the Aston Villa manager, is asked about the return of Hannah Hampton in goal. “She’s top class,” she says. “We all know what she’s capable of. She’s come back in, she’s injury free and I think that’s really important for us, because she’s a top, top player. We’re delighted to have her back in.”
United lost a penalty shootout to Villa in the League Cup in October, but Skinner isn’t fazed. “I think it will be a different game, as when we played at Bescot Stadium, which is their home ground, it was a very tight, compact pitch, whereas we are good in spaces, we create spaces and we move the opponent. For us to find that – Old Trafford is a huge stadium and a huge pitch as well – our aim is to exploit the opponent, try to move them around the pitch, but also we have the beauty of scoring goals in different ways.”
While Skinner has gone with the same starting XI he fielded against Arsenal, he has been speaking about the challenges of managing an increasingly competitive squad. “They all want to play at the stadium and they all want to experience playing for Manchester United and, playing at Old Trafford, that emotion is heightened. For me, I have to take that emotion out of it and I have to pick a team that can win the game.
“The beauty of it is you can pick different variants of the team that can win the game, we just have to maximise a game plan based on what the opponent can give us. It can go different routes and you can still win the game, but for me it is putting a team out in this moment that can win the way we want to win. We know how difficult that can be as this team that we are playing is a very good team that is growing in their experience, too. We have to put in a really good performance if we want to win the game.”
The players have checked out the pitch, which appears to be green, springy and made of grass. All of which bodes well.
… and here’s Villa’s starting lineup.
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Hampton; Mayling, Patten, D Turner, Pacheco; Blindkilde, Corsie, Dali; Lehmann, Daly, Gregory
The team sheets have dropped and here’s how the hosts line up.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Earps; Batlle, Le Tissier, M Turner, Blundell; Zelem, Ladd; Parris, Toone, Galton; Russo
Having announced the sale of over 30,000 tickets for this match, Manchester United are about to mark another big milestone. The previous record crowd for a WSL match at Old Trafford is 20,241, set when they beat Everton 3-1 last March.
This is the women’s team’s third outing at the Theatre of Dreams™, with the first, in 2021, played out in an empty stadium owing to Covid restrictions. “It was such an immense experience last year, the build-up to it, but I hope what we show this time is the experience of having played there in front of the fans,” Marc Skinner, the United manager, said earlier this week. “The first time was behind closed doors when we played West Ham and then we obviously played Everton and now it’s Villa. I want to make sure that we manage the moment and give the fans something that is really worthy of their support.”
After a wild 3-2 win against Arsenal in their last WSL outing, Manchester United are hoping to clamber back to the top of the table (at least temporarily) when they face Aston Villa this afternoon. Three points off Chelsea at the summit with a game in hand, one behind on goal difference, a win will be enough for them to leapfrog Emma Hayes’s side. Arsenal play Everton later today and, with a superior goal difference to both United and Chelsea, could well regain top spot with a win of their own. Nonetheless, with the title race so tight, United will be determined not to slip up against a side that they demolished 5-0 at Leigh Sports Village last season, but failed to beat away from home.