Neither Casey Stoney nor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were probably expecting to find themselves in a title race this season.
Both United teams are three points clear at the top and will have their title credentials put to the test when they travel to the homes of the current Premier League and Women’s Super League champions on Sunday.
Manchester United managers Casey Stoney (left) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (right) both face a huge test of their title credentials on Sunday
While the men play Liverpool at Anfield, the women take on a Chelsea side who are on a long, unbeaten home run – sound familiar?
After unwanted attention off the pitch last week, Stoney needs her stars to perform. Last weekend, every game bar one was postponed due to Covid-19 outbreaks at several clubs after players travelled to Dubai over Christmas.
Stoney was the only manager to admit a mistake and offer an apology for approving the trips, despite none of her players testing positive on their return. Chelsea were unaffected and their game with Reading went ahead – with the Blues claiming a convincing 5-0 victory.
A Chelsea win will see Emma Hayes’ side go top on goal difference with a game in hand while a United victory will send them six points clear at the top. Sportsmail takes a look at the in-form players, the managers and why the title clash at Kingsmeadow is the biggest WSL game in the last few years.
How they stand
Chelsea go into Sunday’s game having had the advantage of playing last weekend after United’s match with Everton was called off due to Covid issues at the Toffees.
The Blues were a class above their opponents and could easily have had more goals.
The victory saw them stretch their WSL unbeaten run to 30 games. They are now one off matching the league record of 31 matches without losing – which was set by Manchester City.
Chelsea are the WSL champions and will go top on goal difference if they beat the Red Devils
United are also unbeaten this season with eight wins and two draws and are looking to end Chelsea’s run of 12 straight victories at home.
The two teams faced each other on the opening day of the season with Leah Galton snatching a point for United with a late equaliser. Stoney’s side were without American internationals Tobin Heath and Christen Press for that game but they should be available this weekend.
Both teams have proved they are strong at the back. Chelsea have conceded just five goals in nine games while United have conceded nine in 10. The Blues just edge their opponents on goals scored with 28 compared to United’s 27.
Much like the opening day of the season, there is little to choose between the two teams.
Manchester United are also unbeaten this season with eight wins and two draws in 10 games
Ones to watch
Chelsea – Fran Kirby
In November 2019, Fran Kirby was diagnosed with pericarditis, a rare condition that is caused by fluid and inflammation of the sac that protects the heart. The illness left her barely able to walk and kept her out of the sport for eight months.
In that time Chelsea signed Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder – two of the biggest stars in the women’s game. But it’s Kirby who has caught the eye this season.
The England international has battled back from illness and injury to score seven goals in nine games – four of which came against Reading last week. A first-half hat-trick — right foot, left foot and header — set the champions on their way and she capped off a memorable performance with another header in the second half.
Kirby admitted she feels like a new signing and her impact has been greater than many of the big-names who arrived in the WSL during the summer.
The forward caused United problems in the reverse fixture and set up Sam Kerr for Chelsea’s goal. The 27-year-old couldn’t be in better form going into this game.
Fran Kirby scored four goals against Reading last weekend to bring her tally up to seven
Manchester United – Tobin Heath
United’s match-winner knows all about success. She’s won World Cups, Championships in America and two Olympic Gold medals.
The 32-year-old can score from anywhere and has the ability to turn a game on its head. United were 2-0 down to City in November before Heath’s sensational strike got them back in the game and they went on to equalise shortly after.
Her takedown of United’s Manchester rivals also delighted fans. ‘We were taught that Manchester is red. Like nobody goes to Manchester City games,’ the American told The New York Times.
Tobin Heath has proved to be a match-winner for United with some incredible goals
‘I feel like, City, because they’re this modern global team, in the United States we think they’re a really big club. But here in Manchester, it’s not a big club.’
Her commitment to the Red Devils was proved when she rejected the chance to take part in the United States’ January training camp so she could help continue the club’s title charge.
Having missed the game against Chelsea at the start of the season, Heath will be desperate to make her mark on Sunday.
Chelsea and United boast two of the most highly regarded managers in the women’s game.
Experience favours the Blues. Hayes has been in management for 21 years while Stoney is in only her third season. However, the United boss enjoyed a 19-year playing career, won 10 trophies and made over 100 appearances for England. They both know what it takes to win.
There’s been no mind games from Hayes or Stoney, no mention of United’s penalty record, or Chelsea’s for that matter. But both coaches are outspoken and are not afraid to speak their mind.
Hayes called on other clubs to be better after last week’s controversy surrounding match postponements.
Emma Hayes (left) and Stoney are two of the most highly regarded managers in the game
She said: ‘It’s our job to do this safely, to look after the players and where we can, let’s make sure these fixtures happen and that we’re not irresponsible as clubs.
‘It’s not good enough. I’m disappointed with women’s football this week. We’ve worked so hard to get where we are and it’s important for everybody to make sure we get back to doing the right things.
‘We’re a professional league, we have elite status, if you don’t want the Government to take that away from us then behave properly.’
Stoney is similarly honest, as was evident in her apology last week. Many fans would like to see either manager in charge of England in the future but both have their eyes firmly fixed on club football.
Biggest game in years?
It’s too early to call it a title decider but it’s a huge match for both clubs and a win for either team will put them firmly in the ascendancy.
A superior goal difference means a draw would give Chelsea a slight advantage, if they win their game in-hand against Tottenham next week.
A victory for United would be huge. It would make them firm favourites to go on to win the league and it would then be theirs to lose.
Chelsea were expected to be title challengers this season. Many thought United could break into the top three, few predicted they could win the league. There is now a growing belief that the men and women’s teams can do something special but both will first have to pass their tests on Sunday.
A victory for either side on Sunday would give them the advantage in the title race
Leah Galton snatched a pointed for United in the reverse fixture at the start of the season