Lucia Garcia was the stoppage-time hero as she had been on several occasions this season giving United their first ever WSL victory over their Manchester rivals in front of a record 7,864 at Leigh Sports Village ensuring the title would be decided on the last day of the season.
Mark Skinner named the same team that were narrowly beaten by Chelsea in last week’s Fa Cup Final meanwhile City made one change to the team that lost to Liverpool putting an end to any outside possibility of the title with Gareth Taylor choosing to bring in full back Leila Ouahabi in place of Kerstin Casparij who dropped to the bench.
It was a blistering start to the game with United pressing high. Their speed and tempo caught City off guard in the early exchanges with the home side taking the lead inside the opening two minutes.
Nikita Parris picked up the ball after defender Yui Hasegawa gave it away. The England international made a storming run forward, keeping her feet despite being clipped from behind. The initial cross from Ona Batlle was hacked away by Hasegawa as she tried to make amends but again, she was beaten to the ball by Hayley Ladd. The United midfielder fired a rocket into the top right-hand corner of the goal leaving Ellie Roebuck helpless.
Going behind seemed to wake ‘The Cityzens’ up after weathering the storm in the opening 20 minutes. The first real threat from Taylor’s side came as Lauren Hemp found Khadija Shaw. The Jamaican had her shot blocked but the rebound fell to Chloe Kelly who clattered her effort off the post.
Alex Greenwood was the next to be sloppy in possession giving the ball straight to Hannah Blundell. She found Parris who had been electric in the first quarter of an hour with a cross field ball. Her first touch was exquisite but her attempt was fired straight at the city keeper. Every time United charged down on goal, the crowd erupted as their support echoed around the stadium spurring the players on with every attack.
Just before half-time City were reduced to 10. Alessia Russo showing her class played a quality diagonal ball in behind the defense to put Parris clean through on goal. Roebuck with a moment of madness 10 yards outside her own box was caught in no man’s land down sliding in on the United attacker bringing her down and with no covering defender gave the referee no choice to show her a straight red card. She was never going to win the ball and, in a game, where stakes were high a rush of blood could have cost the Blues as they were now a goal down and a man down.
The former WSL champions did well to head into the dressing room trailing by just one goal but despite the uphill battle they began the second half the stronger of the two sides. Kelly hit the woodwork for the second time as she rose highest to another Hemp free-kick with her header appearing to get a touch off Katie Zelems shoulder onto the crossbar.
Leah Galton had two chances in a matter of minutes to put the game beyond City. First, she got on the end of a Zelem cross but could not sort her feet out with the ball hitting her knee and going out for a goal kick. Next, she volleyed over from close range this time from player of the match Batlle’s in-swinging ball.
In a very nervy and cagey affair, regardless of United having the extra player, it was City who controlled the ball and were the most comfortable in possession. Forced to make the most of their set-piece opportunities, balls into the box caused United’s defence problems with Shaw looking to add to her 18 goals this season. Her header sprung the England Number one into action saving low down to her left-hand side.
Shouts for a penalty rang around Leigh Sports Village as Shaw went down in the box. It came after an attack from the right. Kelly whipped in a cross to the far post, Hemp headed it back across goal towards the Jamaican with Ladd clearing. Both players and manager Taylor appealed to Rebecca Welch believing she went through the back of the City striker in the process but the referee waved away any protests.
There was time for another twist in the tale as City equalised in extraordinary fashion. A deep cross went over everyone in the United box. Angeldahl picked it up on the right-hand flank, firing a dangerous cross-come shot towards Earps who was caught off guard allowing it to loop over her head into the top left-hand corner of her goal. With an unreal slice of fortune, the away side probably deserved their equaliser and as it stood Chelsea would be league champions without even kicking a ball.
Skinner threw on more attack-minded players and fresh legs with Rachel Williams, Garcia and Vilde Boe Risa taking to the pitch in search and hope of a winner.
The tempo of the match suddenly became quicker. 18-year-old substitute goalkeeper Khira Keating made an important save from a Williams effort pushing it straight into the charging Garcia who could not slowdown in time kicking the rebound against her own foot and out for a goal kick
City had chances to nick the game themselves as everything began to get frantic for ‘The Reds.’ Kelly nipped the ball off Millie Turner’s foot, hitting a teasing ball into Hayley Raso who looked surprised that it had come past two United defenders but fortunately for both United and Earps it bounced off the Australian’s chest and out for a goal kick with the WSL golden glove winner left stranded
Kelly was at the heart of every attack this time her back heel fell to Shaw just inside the box. Bearing down one on one on goal Maya Le Tissier produced a match-saving block out of nowhere as she threw her foot in front of the shot to prevent a certain goal had she of not got there. One for the highlight reel of the young United defender.
Hasegawa failed to convert yet another Kelly cross which left players with their hands on their heads shocked at how it had not gone in with the game being stretched at either end.
In a game that had everything United made City pay for not making the most of their opportunities. They had been a long way off their best in the second half but moments later after they appeared to be facing defeat thanks to Le Tissier they found the winner deep into added time.
Ladd played the ball out wide left to Blundell who found herself in plenty of space. She put a whipping cross to the back post, Risa directed her header back across the goal, falling nicely to the feet of Garcia with her smashing it towards goal from short distance not even a deflection off the keeper or a defender on the line could stop it going in to keep the title race still alive.
What a finish to an unbelievable Derby. Whilst United celebrated with their fantastic supporters a look of disappointment filled the faces of players and staff across the city camp.
Manchester United have now scored 15 goals in the last 15 minutes of games more than any other WSL team this season with 12 goals coming via substitutes the most in the league.
With one round of fixtures left to play it is still all to play for at both ends of the table. United will take credit for pushing Chelsea all the way but need to hope ‘The Blues’ slip up against relegation-threatened Reading. After the performance against Arsenal, it is very unlikely this will happen but after all, they did begin the season with a shock defeat to Liverpool so there could yet be another twist in the tale. The Red Devils are guaranteed a top three finish and the ultimate prize, a place in next season’s Champions League.
Manchester City look to finish fourth regardless of the results on the last day of the season due to Arsenal’s superior goal difference advantage over ‘The Cityzens.’ They would need a huge win over Everton combined with ‘The Gunners; losing heavily to Aston Villa but being realistic that is not going to happen.
The transformation of Manchester United has been brilliant, especially for the growth of the Women’s game. Who would have thought they would be getting to their first FA Cup final and secure Champions League status within five years.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1) Earps, batlle, le Tissier, Turner, Blundell, ladd, Zelem ©, Parris (Garcia 75), Toone (boe risa 75), Galton (Thomas 90+3), Russo (Williams 66)
Unused substitutes: Riviere, Naalsund, Tounkara, Cascarino, Baggaley.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1) Roebuck, Morgan, Houghton ©, Greenwood, Ouahabi (Keating 44), Hasegawa, Angeldahl, Coombs (Castellanos 82), Hemp (Raso 76), Shaw.
Unused substitutes: Casparij, Dahou