Manchester United took another big step towards qualifying for the Champions League for the first time as they tightened their grip on third place in the WSL table at the weekend.
The following day, Manchester City’s late win over Tottenham ensured that the gap United had opened up on Spurs by beating Reading 3-1 remained at three points.
From United’s perspective, the ideal result between Spurs and City would have been a draw, with the latter still posing a major threat just five points adrift and one game less – they have also played all of their most difficult.
The United side firmly maintain that they are taking things one game at a time. That has been manager Marc Skinner’s constant message in recent weeks, refusing to look too far ahead.
Leah Galton also echoed that sentiment after her star performance against Reading.
“We are getting there [for the Champions League]we have to take it game by game,” she said.
Galton and the rest of the team that was at the club last season know only too well how this can slip away. Casey Stoney’s United had led the WSL in the first half of the campaign and were unbeaten after 10 games, only losing five in their last 12 to propel them to fourth.
Entry into the Champions League is the next big step in the club’s progression.
As well as the glory of actually playing in the competition, the Champions League serves a bigger purpose for United at what is quickly becoming a critical moment in their ongoing development.
They have largely recruited well since forming in 2018, with more recent catches like Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo in particular painting a very bright future. Others like Jackie Groenen have proven themselves on the world stage, while Signe Bruun is a loan move from French giants Lyon.
Retaining such players will be essential if United are to fulfill their ambitions and challenge for trophies soon. Batlle and Russo are 22 and 23 respectively. They are already among the best in the WSL in their respective positions and also represent the long term.
Likewise, however, both are out of contract this summer. United have the option of extending their deals for another season and intend to do so, but this will only delay the need to negotiate new long-term contracts for a few months.
Ultimately, it falls to United to prove to every player in the squad, and every potential signing, that they are a competitive force in women’s football at home and abroad. The Champions League and all it stands for is the clearest way for the club to achieve this.
Batlle admitted last week in an interview with sky sports that is of great importance to her.
“I’ve never played in the Champions League,” she said, “… so it would be a dream to achieve it. It’s something I really want to achieve in my career. We have more the message that we want to win every game. If we do that, we will get into the Champions League.”
The club have the potential to offer her that – she will have played a major role in that if it happens this season. But if they fail, it increases the risk that other teams – Barcelona and Chelsea have been specifically linked with the Spaniard – could offer her what United cannot.
So would Russo and a number of talented and ambitious players in the current squad who want and deserve the chance to play at the highest level. If United are to persuade their best players to stay for the long haul, entering the Champions League in the coming months sends the clearest message that they remain the right choice.