A hand cupped around the ear, badge slap and knee slide from the Manchester City and England duo Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp are images from a derby defeat that will haunt the Old Trafford crowd.
“We got what we deserved,” the Manchester United manager, Marc Skinner, said. “I don’t think we were good enough, as a collective, all of us weren’t good enough. We win together, and we lose together.”
United were a goal up thanks to Katie Zelem’s penalty, after a handball from their former captain Alex Greenwood, and could argue that they had another incorrectly ruled out for the ball having gone out of play on the byline. Replays were inconclusive on whether it had definitively crossed the line.
But two goals in just over a minute from Jill Roord, assisted by Kelly, and then Hemp delivered the sucker punches that inflicted United’s first Women’s Super League defeat and pulled City out of their slump and above their rivals. Khadija Shaw added a third for City in the second half, by charging down the goalkeeper Mary Earps’s clearance, before City’s Laia Aleixandri was sent off for a silly second yellow for pulling back Lucía García.
United have waited to play a derby at Old Trafford until the performance gap between the six‑year-old club and their neighbours, the 2016 WSL champions and regular contenders, was a little smaller. They have played four times at Old Trafford, against West Ham twice, Everton and Aston Villa, before breaking the club’s attendance record for the visit of City on Sunday with 43,615 fans present.
The Red Devils had an impressive home record against City, having drawn twice and beaten their rivals once at Leigh Sports Village before hosting them at Old Trafford. That victory came in May last season, a first win against City, as United finished above them for the first time.
City, meanwhile, had endured back‑to‑back defeats before this meeting – against Arsenal and then Brighton – to put their title challenge on the ropes. No team have lost three and won a WSL title.
The result then was big, said the City manager, Gareth Taylor. “What this game does is bring a lot of confidence,” he said. “Hopefully this can act as a springboard for us.”
Taylor said he was “philosophical about performances and results – if we didn’t win tonight, I’m not going to go home and not come out of my pit for a while”.
If the narrative has been that there is a changing of the guard under way in Manchester, United’s opener fuelled it. After 20 minutes of an open and frenetic game, Melvine Malard cut inside and shot goalward but the ball struck Greenwood’s outstretched arm. Zelem’s resulting penalty was emphatic, with the goalkeeper Khiara Keating getting a hand to it but unable to deal with the force.
Ten minutes later United had a golden opportunity to double their advantage when Geyse collected the ball at the byline before firing in but the ball was ruled to have gone out of play. There is no VAR in the WSL but replay after replay could not show whether it had crossed the line.
“I don’t want to make excuses,” Skinner said of the disallowed effort. “Maybe we can pass that a little bit earlier and it’s a goal. I don’t think tonight, as a collective, we were at our usual best.”
Narratives are not always linear and, while it may be getting tighter between the Manchester teams, this game showed that any momentum shift is a process rather than instant and two goals in 79 seconds decidedly swung things City’s way.
First, Kelly beat Lisa Naalsund on the left before sending a low cross towards Roord in the middle and the Dutch forward fired in through the legs of Millie Turner. Just 16 seconds after the restart they had the lead. Shaw was initially denied after Zelem was dispossessed on the edge of the area but the City forward sent the rebound into the feet of Hemp, who lashed into the top corner.
The killer blow came from Shaw, who chased down Maya Le Tissier’s short pass and blocked Earps’s attempted clearance back past the keeper and into the empty net.
City put themselves in trouble, though, Aleixandri pulling back the substitute García, collecting a second yellow and City’s fourth red card in seven league games. But this was a gutsy City performance, a resilient one, and the club captain, Steph Houghton, arrived off the bench to marshal them to safety.