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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

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Percival’s late equaliser saves Spurs and dents Manchester United’s WSL hopes

A 55-yard free-kick in injury time from the New Zealand defender Ria Percival earned Tottenham a first point against Manchester United and moved her team up to third in the Women’s Super League.

Percival’s long-range effort, which bounced cruelly past the England goalkeeper Mary Earps, cancelled out Alessia Russo’s strike on the stroke of half-time.

United, who are desperate to finish in the top three and earn Champions League football after narrowly missing out last season, have beaten Spurs each time the sides have met since the Red Devils launched a women’s team in 2018, scoring 20 goals across their six encounters and conceding just three times. It is a testament to the development of Tottenham under the former England assistant manager Rehanne Skinner, who is approaching her first year anniversary in north London, that the gap between these two sides is shrinking. At the end of last season there were 27 points separating fourth-placed United and Tottenham in eighth. Six games in and Tottenham are two points ahead of United.

The gap between the teams has not reduced solely as a result of improvement at Spurs but also in part due to a dip at United, as the club adapts to life without their former manager Casey Stoney and the star recruits Tobin Heath and Christen Press, who all departed in the summer.

United were unbeaten and top at Christmas last season, having dropped just two points, before they slid down the table after a growing injury list took its toll. Now, under their new manager, Marc Skinner, who joined from Orlando Pride, they are six games in but have dropped four points – three in a bruising 6-1 home loss to champions Chelsea and the other in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City. One loss and one draw, to the WSL title holders and FA Cup holders respectively, iis not a bad return. However, in a 12-team league each point dropped is more keenly felt. In addition, with a number of teams investing to try to break the stranglehold of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City at the top of the table, it is increasingly tough to prove that investments are reaping rewards based on league positions come May. This perhaps puts pressure on managers too quickly, not affording them the time to patiently build their squad season on season.

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It took time for United to settle into the game at the Hive, where the sun beat down but an icy wind swept through, but by the break they had the edge and a narrow lead courtesy of Russo, who spent much of last season out with a hamstring injury that required surgery. Collecting a short pass from her fellow England international Ella Toone, Russo nutmegged the Canadian Olympic gold medallist Shelina Zadorsky, brushed off pressure from Ashleigh Neville and hammered a rising strike past the stand-in Spurs keeper Tinja-Riikka Korpela from a tight angle.

Despite a controlled performance from the visiting team, who were urged on by a vocal contingent of travelling fans who had braved the trip despite the 12.15pm kick off, they were kept at bay by Spurs. Indeed, United were increasingly forced to rely on a set of fine saves from Earps, including a tipped-away 30-yard effort from Kit Graham, to maintain their narrow lead. But in the fifth minute of added time Earps’s goal was finally breached by Percival’s nippy strike to spark wild celebrations.

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