Manchester United 2-0 Reading
By Catherine Paquette
Above: Ona Batlle celebrates after scoring Manchester United’s second. Photo: Reuters.
The opening match of any season is always a big affair. This year’s first FAWSL clash even more so. With the beginning of the Sky Sports era, the first women’s domestic match on the broadcaster was always going to be a hugely important game.
Manchester United was hosting Reading Football club at their home stadium, the Leigh Sports Village. Known for its atmosphere since United reformed as a club in 2018, the first match with fans back in 18 months promised to be a vibrant evening.
The game marked the beginning of a new era for the Red Devils. After the departure of their first head coach Casey Stoney at the end of last season, it was now Marc Skinner’s turn to put his stamp on the team. Coming off a season where they finished fourth, just one point behind a Champions League qualification spot, and where they lost a number of talented players, the Manchester United fans are hoping this year will continue to be one where the team remains competitive at the top of FAWSL.
Reading for their part are also starting a new era, one which does not include newly-retired Fara Williams. With some turnover in the offseason, the Royals arguably recruited well to replace players who had departed. Having a smaller budget than some of their bigger FAWSL competitors, continuing their style of tenacious play which has kept them as mid-table contenders for a few seasons is a realistic target.
Manchester United’s first clash against Reading was always going to be a good first test for both teams. The Royals have always been known for their ability to pull off surprising wins despite their mid table status over the last few campaigns. One of these surprises last season was their beating of United at home by a margin of 2-0, the only team to achieve this in the 2020-21 FAWSL season.
In his starting line-up, Marc Skinner chose to give United career starts to three new signings, Aoife Mannion, Hannah Blundell and Vilde Bøe Risa. Kelly Chambers did the same with Reading’s Gemma Evans, Faye Bryson and Chloe Peplow.
Despite being the away team, Reading came out hard, initially controlling possession and dictating the play. After the Royals’ Brooke Chaplan took a shot from distance which sailed over the crossbar in the fifth minute, United started to enter the match. The Red Devils did well to contain Reading, limiting their movement largely to their own half and progressively started to take control of possession.
Manchester United’s first real attempt on goal occurred in the 22nd minute of play. A shot into the box by Lucy Staniforth was not dealt with by Reading goalkeeper Grace Moloney, who was under pressure. The deflection found Leah Galton whose half-volley was too high and partially intercepted by Faye Bryson.
The intensity in the match only seemed to pick up after this with United gaining more confidence. New acquisition Vilde Bøe Risa and Hannah Blundell both showed their qualities, each with a number of sequences that demonstrated to the United supporters why they were signed by the club.
However, it was United original players that broke the deadlock. Receiving the ball midway through her half, Ella Toone supplied a magnificent through ball pass to Kirsty Hanson who found the back of the net in the 39th minute.
United came out in the second half with much more intensity and focus than the first. The first scare of the half though was curtesy of Reading. Lily Woodham supplied a great cross into United’s box who badly cleared it. It found the feet of Brooke Chaplen who took a rocket shot on goal. Her strike hit the crossbar and in the replay seemed to bounce inside the goal before deflecting out. No goal was given.
Three minutes later it was United on the attack. A great give and go started with Ona Batlle passing to Ella Toone just inside the box. She then passed it back to Batlle whose shot found the top corner of Reading’s net. The Red Devils found themselves with a two goal lead.
Two goals were not enough though for United. Now having fully found their confidence as a squad, they largely dominated the last third of the match with continued pressure on Reading’s defence.
The Royals did have a short spell of dangerous crosses, shortly after the introduction of Gae-ul Jeon, but the combination of good Mancunian defence and a lack of point person in front of goal resulted in no real threats. As the game continued they seemed to fade. In the end it was to be United’s day.
While Reading started well, ultimately it was great strikes from United, a number of defensive errors from the Royals and a lack of a target striker to threaten the goal that precipitated the visitors downfall.
The addition of Natasha Dowie, not available for this match, should hopefully help with Reading’s future threat. However, as a team they will find more offensive strides and create clearer chances going forward to remain competitive. Not fading as the match progresses will also be essential, something they fell victim to this game.
For United’s part, despite a slow start into the game, once they found their stride they were able to control the match and create a number of threatening offensive plays. Those who were worried about the form of the team after the off-season changes will be somewhat relieved by the form shown in the match.
While Reading have shocked United in the past, they were not going to repeat this on the season’s opening night.
Teams: MANCHESTER UNITED: Earps, Blundell, Mannion, Thorisdottir, Batlle, Risa, Zelem, Hanson, Staniforth, Galton, Toone. Substitutes: Thomas (for Toone 66), Ladd, Fuso, Groenen (for Staniforth 66), Smith, Turner, Russo (for Risa 75), Smith, Baggaley.
Scorers: Hanson 39, Batlle 69.
READING: Maloney, Bryson, Cooper, Evans, Woodham, Rowe, Peplow, Chaplen, Harding, Harries, Eikeland. Substitutes: Rose, Jeon (Harding 71), Stewart, Roberts, Lister, Wild.
Referee: Abigail Byrne.