Manchester United up and running thanks to opening win over Reading

Manchester United ushered in the new Women’s Super League season and manager Marc Skinner’s tenure with a 2-0 win over Reading in Leigh.

Goals from forward Kirsty Hanson and left-back Ona Batlle gave a crowd heaving with anticipation and nerves something to celebrate in either half with England’s Ella Toone providing assists for both. Reading were unlucky not to have drawn level early in the second half but Brooke Chaplen’s effort was ruled not to have crossed the line after it deflected down off the crossbar.

It is fair to say that United fans have not known quite what to expect from their new manager, Skinner, and his team. The former Birmingham manager impressed in the Midlands, arguably helping the team to punch above their weight. In his charge Birmingham reached an FA Cup final in 2017 and finished an impressive fifth in the league the following season. When he was poached by Orlando Pride in the NWSL in January 2019, Birmingham were fourth. He struggled in the United States, with the Pride finishing with their lowest ever points tally in his first season and rock bottom of the table. tuttavia, by the time United moved in, with former England international Casey Stoney having departed due to frustrations with the team’s facilities, Skinner’s Orlando had picked up 15 points in their opening seven games of the season, a club record.

Skinner has his work cut out at United too, with Stoney’s misgivings about the set-up still playing on minds while there has also been concern about this summer’s recruitment. Much of the club’s business was set up before Skinner’s arrival but United have failed to match the quality of the players that have departed, primarily US World Cup-winning duo Christen Press and Tobin Heath and young starlet Lauren James, who has joined Chelsea. Signing like-for-like without Champions League football is hard, but United have not been able to bring in the numbers to compensate for that with five incoming and 10 outgoing – three on loan. Three of those brought in, the Norwegian midfielder Vilde Bøe Risa, former Manchester City defender Aoife Mannion and ex-Chelsea full-back Hannah Blundell were named in the starting XI by Skinner at a crisp Leigh Sports Village but it was Reading who dominated for the first half an hour to add to the fears of United fans.

Kelly Chambers handed debuts to defender Faye Bryson, Wales international Gemma Evans and former Tottenham midfielder Chloe Peplow but they struggled to capitalise on their quick start. Without former Milan forward Natasha Dowie, who had a knock, and young Belgium striker Justine Vanhaevermaet it was left to Emma Harries to lead the line and the 19-year-old struggled to capitalise on the team’s hard work.

Skinner had said that having big name players such as Heath and Press can be a burden as much as a boon, with young and fringe players unable to get the game time they need to progress. In the 39th minute though, it was last season’s breakout player Toone, who scored nine times, who found the key to unlocking the resilient Reading defence, as she threaded the ball through to winger Hanson, who waited for goalkeeper Grace Moloney to make a move before stroking the ball round her and in. It was United’s first attempt on target and against the run of play but you could almost feel the pressure lift off red shoulders.

In the second half United survived a scare when Chaplen’s blistering effort from distance crashed down off the crossbar and looked to have crossed the line before bouncing away but with no goal line technology in the WSL Reading protests were fruitless.

United’s 2020-21 player of the season, the Spanish full-back Ona Batlle, eased tensions again in the 55th minute though, doubling United’s lead. After a neat one-two with Toone she lashed the ball in after coming inside from the left.

The Reds will face sterner tests. As well as being without two of their new recruits up front, Reading are having to come to terms with the retirement of England’s most-capped player Fara Williams. Nel frattempo, forward Deanne Rose, an Olympic gold medallist with Canada in the summer, was not deemed ready to enter the fray from the bench.

Promoted Leicester are up next for United but then they play Chelsea, who they held to a draw on the opening day last year and suffered a tight 2-1 defeat to in the away fixture. That will offer more of a measure of just how much Skinner has been able to do with his new-look United team.

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