Old Trafford hasn’t been full of feel-good stories this season, so the sight of Manchester United fan Alessia Russo spearheading a crucial victory for United Women on a landmark day for the club was one to lift the spirits.
Russo scored two outstanding headers to give United a vital victory in the Women’s Super League, making sure their historic first appearance in front of fans at Old Trafford was one to remember.
United had beaten West Ham here last season but that game was in front of empty stands, a marked contrast to the 30,000 who enjoyed the spring sunshine on Sunday.
While this was a history-making afternoon for United, it was also a vital one as they seek to hold off the challenge of a resurgent Manchester City to secure a first Champions League campaign since the club was formed four years ago.
The men’s team have found it hard going at home this season and their chances of appearing in Europe’s elite competition next season look to be over, but Marc Skinner’s side embraced the switch from Leigh Sports Village, playing with confidence as the game progressed.
That was all the more impressive given the big day got off to the worst possible start. There were only three minutes on the clock when Maria Thorisdottir’s loose pass gave Everton possession and Kenza Dali’s perfectly-weighted ball sent Claire Emslie away down the right, firing a perfectly-angled drive from 10 yards across Mary Earps and into the corner of the Stretford End goal.
If United were shaken by that they didn’t show it. They regained their composure quickly and while the Toffees were an occasional threat on the break, they never looked like hurting United again.
Russo had United’s first shot on target, forcing Sandy MacIver into a routine save with a low 20-yarder before a well-worked short corner saw Thorisdottir test Maclver with a hooked volley from Hannah Blundell’s cross.
The pressure resulted in an equaliser 10 minutes before the break. Everton had been finding it increasingly difficult to get out of their own half and Ona Batlle’s surging run down the right resulted in a cross that was finished smartly by United fan Russo, whose delight in scoring at Old Trafford was obvious. The striker was leaning backwards but managed to loop her header over MacIver for her eighth WSL goal of the campaign.
Everton skipper Izzy Christiansen reminded United that the visitors still possessed a threat when she fired a shot narrowly over on the stroke of half-time after combining with Toni Duggan.
United were back on the front foot after the break, however, and really should have been ahead early in the second half. Martha Thomas’ quick feet down the right bought gasps from fans in the Sir Alex Ferguson stand and her back post cross was inviting for the unmarked Ella Toone, but from seven yards out she could only scoop a first-time shot over MacIver’s crossbar.
Toone’s blushes were only momentary, with the turnaround complete three minutes later through Katie Zelem’s penalty, dispatched with aplomb into the roof of the Stretford End net.
The spot-kick came after link-up play involving both full-backs. Blundell drifted infield and threaded a fine pass between defenders for Batlle to cross low on the run. While half-time substitute Lucy Graham intercepted the ball, her loose touch was pounced on by Thomas and Graham’s lunge only succeeded in catching the United forward on the ankle.
United were searching for a goal to kill the game off now and they thought they had when Toone converted after MacIver had blocked Russo’s close-range shot, but an incorrect offside flag curtailed the celebrations.
Without the cushion of a third goal United remain vulnerable and their record of 11 dropped points in the final 15 minutes of games this season was the worst in the WSL.
They were kept on their toes when Emslie cut inside Blundell and curled a shot narrowly wide, but nerves were soothed six minutes from time when Russo got her second of the afternoon.
Zelem’s floated corner landed eight yards from goal but the striker produced another outstanding header, making powerful contact from a standing start to arrow it into the top corner of MacIver’s goal. On a feelgood day for United at Old Trafford this season, it felt fitting that Russo’s dream double was enough to land her the player of the match award.
With City’s WSL clash with Birmingham postponed due to a Covid outbreak, United have moved three points clear in third place as the season reaches its final stages.
If the way they embraced the pressure of performing at Old Trafford is an indicator of their willingness to stay the course with their neighbours, then this battle could go to the wire.
United: Earps, Batlle, Ladd, Thorisdottir, Blundell, Groenen (Moore 82), Zelem, Thomas (Hanson 72), Galton, Toone (Bøe Risa 89), Russo (Bruun 89)