Manchester United v Chelsea preview: Euro star Russo to stun WSL champions

United’s returning star striker can help the hosts lay down an early title marker with a statement win over the depleted Blues in their top-of-the-table clash at 6.45pm tonight, writes Um-E-Aymen Babar.

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Manchester United are hoping Euros hero Alessia Russo will be the difference as they look to continue their perfect start to the Women’s Super League season with victory over champions Chelsea at Leigh Sports Village tonight.

Both sides have displayed their early title credentials during five-game winning runs, but it’s the Red Devils who currently sit top of the table on goal difference ahead of Arsenal, having not yet conceded a goal. Third-placed Blues have played one game more and shipped five goals in their opening six matches, so United will look to exploit their early defensive frailties.

This was something they were unable to do last season, when they were instead on the end of a demoralising double on Chelsea’s way to the title last term. United were humiliated 6-1 last September before losing 4-2, with goals from Sam Kerr (2), Erin Cuthbert and Guro Reiten on that fateful final day in May as the Blues not only claimed the championship crown but killed United’s Champions League dream.

Tonight, the hosts will be gunning for revenge during this highly-anticipated big showdown and a statement win could be a measure of how far this Manchester United side has come in two seasons under Marc Skinner. The manager certainly feels United are a different proposition now, describing their mentality as “ruthless” after last weekend’s 3-0 victory over Everton fired them top, thanks to goals from Nikita Parris, Leah Galton and Hayley Ladd.

The emphatic triumph meant they became only the second team in WSL history to win their opening five matches without conceding a goal, and they were further boosted by the return of Euros winner Russo, who came on for the last 20 minutes and will present a real danger to Chelsea if she features from the start this evening.

Spanish full-back Ona Batlle could also make an appearance after recovering from concussion, but tonight’s game just comes too soon for defender Aoife Mannion who is stepping up her return to fitness since suffering an ACL injury in March.

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Depending on Arsenal’s result against Leicester this afternoon, a high-scoring victory could give the Blues the opportunity to claim top spot. But they’ll have to do it without manager Emma Hayes, who is “getting better day by day” following an emergency hysterectomy due to an ongoing battle with endometriosis; however, general manager Paul Green also confirmed this week that no date has been set for her return and they’ll assess the situation after the international break.

Hayes was in the crowd to witness Chelsea’s impressive 3-1 win over Aston Villa last Sunday, which saw assistant manager Denise Reddy nominated for the WSL Manager of the Month award for October, but influential star Fran Kirby missed the game and won’t feature tonight while she’s still recovering from a viral infection. Maren Mjelde is also out with a hamstring injury and midfielder Melanie Leupolz’s on maternity leave.

However, United will have to beware the threat of Villa slayer Lauren James — whose two goals and an assist earned her a Player of the Month nomination — and last season’s constant thorn in their side, Kerr, who also got on the scoresheet in the Kings Meadow triumph.

Managers speak

Manchester United manager Marc Skinner said: “We have to be very clear that we should be confident but not complacent. We know how good Chelsea have been historically in this league, so we absolutely have respect for them but it’s about making sure we impose ourselves on this game. The defences of both teams are going to be tested and we have to make this into a mature performance. Chelsea can make something happen out of nothing. Resilience is going to be key in this game to get a positive result.

“We have players that can come into the game and make a difference. We didn’t have that last year. The reason they’re performing so well is that they know behind them is someone who is ready to take their place. What I love about this team is that they are willing to give to each other and willing to perform for each other.”

Chelsea general manager Paul Green said: “We’ve got a lot of momentum behind us at the moment and we’re going to be missing a few players but that’s why we have a big squad and a lot of quality in our squad. We’re going up there full of confidence and looking to use that momentum that we have built in the previous games.

“Marc has done a great job. We know Manchester United are a top team and we experienced that last season particularly that last game that proved difficult for us. But we’re really confident and pleased with the way the team is playing. We’re looking to go up there and show that this weekend.”

Possible line-ups

Prediction: Manchester United 2 Chelsea 1

Given that both teams have such a strong line-up and have been performing incredibly well so far this season, it should be a tight contest tonight. Chelsea have won their last four meetings with the Red Devils, so I think this will motivate Manchester United to be a lot more aggressive on the pitch and give the hosts belief that they can take the three points off the champions. They also have their top scorer from last season Russo back, while the Blues are missing Kirby, and that could be a game-changer.

Follow Um-E-Aymen Babar on Twitter @ItsUmeAymen

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