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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sophie Downey at Broadfield Stadium

Manchester United open up WSL lead after Leah Galton punishes Brighton

Manchester United celebrate after Leah Galton’s opening goal at Brighton
Manchester United react after Leah Galton’s opening goal at Brighton. Photograph: Manchester United/Getty Images

Marc Skinner praised Manchester United’s “professional performance” as they secured a comfortable victory over relegation-battling Brighton. Two goals from the in-form Leah Galton and late additions from Rachel Williams and Lucía García helped United open up a three-point lead at the top, swinging the pressure back on to their title rivals as the WSL continues towards a fascinating conclusion.

Despite the score and the two sides’ contrasting fortunes, it was not always straightforward. On a bumpy pitch and with a vocal record home crowd, United struggled to find top gear against a dogged Brighton.

“It was a tough challenge on that pitch so I’m really proud of them,” Skinner said. “We scored four and we kept a clean sheet, but the energy to run at the end and keep pressing to force mistakes … It was a wonderful performance. It ranks up there as one of the best based on circumstances.”

The league leaders arrived in Crawley on the back of a 4-0 victory against West Ham with Skinner making one change. Vilde Bøe Risa came in for Nikita Parris while Maya Le Tissier and Alessia Russo started against their former club.

Brighton’s struggles this year are no secret. Winless since November, they are flirting dangerously with relegation, two points above bottom-placed Leicester. Performances have improved, but their defensive problems are evident, having conceded more goals than any other team this season.

As predicted, it was the visitors who began on the front foot with the running of Russo and Galton stretching Brighton. It took 13 minutes for them to put their noses in front when Galton got her head on the end of a trademark Katie Zelem delivery. Brighton protested, adamant that their goalkeeper, Lydia Williams, had been impeded, but the referee, Stacey Fullicks, waved them away.

Leah Galton doubles Manchester United’s lead at Brighton.
Leah Galton doubles Manchester United’s lead at Brighton. Photograph: Manchester United/Getty Images

Despite conceding, Brighton showed the competitiveness Amy Merricks has talked about recently. Their best opportunities came on the counter with Veatriki Sarri and Emma Kullberg going close.

Nevertheless, United controlled possession with Zelem’s deliveries as accurate as ever. Their captain was omitted from the England squad this week, but is a consistent presence domestically, the link in Skinner’s midfield. She should have had another assist, but Bøe Risa somehow diverted a shot wide from point-blank range.

The break saw Brighton come out refreshed, disrupting United’s flow. Katie Robinson was a thorn in their side setting up Sarri for their best chance. But the importance of whoever got the next goal was evident.

Despite the hosts’ endeavour, it was a moment of magic from Galton that decided the outcome. The winger’s speed is electric, and she left Jorja Fox in her wake as United countered. Galton glided round the onrushing Williams before converting from a tight angle for her eighth league goal of the season. Her performance inevitably brought plaudits from Skinner, labelling her “one of the best left-sided players I’ve ever worked with”.

It was a strike that stalled Brighton’s momentum and two late goals from their substitutes meant United solidified victory. Williams headed home another Zelem delivery before García pounced on a loose back pass to make it comfortable.

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Despite the loss, Merricks took heart. “Every game, we need to compete and show ourselves in the best light,” she said. “The team did that. There’s a reason why Manchester United are top. It’s a real positive that we’re competing with them.”

To earn a result against the leaders was always going to be a challenge and there is no doubt Brighton have more vital encounters ahead. For United, they head into the international break in prime position for the run-in.

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