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Monday, June 24, 2024

Manchester United have a chance at redemption in Sunday’s FA Cup Final

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Manchester United Women will return to Wembley on Sunday, taking another crack at the FA Cup trophy that eluded them a year ago as Chelsea completed the first of two trophy wins over the Reds to end the 2022/23 season.

In that match, United flew out of the gates and outshot the Blues 14-8 on the day, but Sam Kerr stepped up once again to terrorize United. Her 68th-minute goal was the difference on the day as United missed their first real chance at winning a trophy since their promotion in 2019.

This time around United beat Chelsea though, securing a 2-1 win to deny Emma Hayes one last trip to Wembley in a thrilling semi-final at Leigh Sports Village. Their opponents in the final, Tottenham, are a different opponent altogether, but by no means a pushover side.

Tottenham

Spurs have had an interesting campaign, falling short in their push to unseat any of the top sides in the Women’s Super League but succeeding in playing an exciting brand of football. Their problem is their goals don’t always come in bunches and they’re well capable of letting a few past them as well.

Former United forward Martha Thomas has been a big part of that as a goalscorer, and so too has Grace Clinton, the young United loanee who has more than proved Marc Skinner wrong with regular first-team football. Thomas leads the team with 10 goals in all competitions

Clinton caught the eye of England boss Sarina Wiegman and earned her first call-up and appearances for the Lionesses this season. She even scored in her first England start against Austria.

Spurs had a strong start to the WSL season, putting up a good fight in a loss to Chelsea before winning three straight. Spurs failed to win a match from November until mid-December, including a 4-0 loss at home to United. Hannah Blundell, Ella Toone, Melvine Malard, and Hayley Ladd all got on the scoresheet that day in one of the Reds’ best performances of the season.

Despite a couple of good wins over Arsenal in the league and Manchester City in the FA Cup quarter-final, Spurs haven’t quite rediscovered winning form. They’ve drawn three straight in the league, including a 2-2 FA Cup Final preview at Leigh Sports Village in April.

That match was an accurate expression of the two clubs and their respective seasons, with neither dealing a knockout blow when given the opportunity. For United, taking an early lead before fading was too familiar a sight, and Spurs also failed to stay in front by letting a stoppage-time equalizer through.

Someone has to win on Sunday though…

United’s last hope for redemption

Marc Skinner’s United side have had a difficult campaign to say the least.

They’re almost certain to drop out of the top four in the final league table for the first time, and failed to build on their best season to date by crashing out of the UEFA Women’s Champions League and falling off a cliff against the best English sides.

And yet, they are the favorites to win the FA Cup Final.

United scored their first victory over Chelsea in their history to make it to Wembley, overcoming the roadblock that has long kept them out of Europe and away from the silverware in England. That took guts, a strong defensive performance, Mary Earps heroics, and most importantly some quality goals.

United has a few strengths that Spurs lack on paper, but the biggest one is creativity. Ella Toone and Leah Galton are two likely starters who provide that, with Geyse a question mark considering some recent drops. They were the providers for Lucia Garcia and Rachel Williams in the semi-final and have been constants in the team for years now. Galton and Blundell on the left have been a reliable pairing for United as a flanking attack with Toone pulling the strings at the 10 ahead of Katie Zelem and, recently, Lisa Naalsund.

In attack, United haven’t really replaced Alessia Russo as the talisman goalscorer, but Melvine Malard has been a fan favorite in her season on loan from Lyon. When given the chance she’s been a force up top, and new arrival Geyse has been a creative force in her own right when Skinner lets her play.

There are plenty of options to put one past the Spurs defense, but it starts with the structure at the back. United’s most continuity comes from Earps playing behind the pair of Millie Turner and Maya Le Tissier. They helped form the best defense in England last season, and though they haven’t quite delivered on the same level this year they’re still a strong foundation with Jayde Riviere and Blundell at the full-back positions.

The Final word

Oddsmakers like United and it’s likely because of the experience. When it works the structure is sound, but it’s been vulnerable this season. Jessica Naz has the pace to cause problems as well, and if she can skip between the defenders she can score the kind of goal United have conceded a lot of.

There is also the case of Grace Clinton’s absence. She is ineligible to play in the final because she is a Manchester United, something that is a bit unfair as it is a straightforward advantage to the Reds at this stage. She’s a big part of Spurs finding success this season and picked up a WSL Player of the Season nomination for her efforts on Friday.

That being said, nothing has been straightforward for United this season. The Reds’ regression under Skinner has caused many to question his leadership, with United losing all but one of their WSL encounters with the four teams above them this season. Their cup form has been something to hold onto though, scoring big wins before a signature win over Chelsea. The talent and experience is all there to make something special out of a mostly poor campaign.

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