Two goals from the head of lifelong fan Alessia Russo helped Manchester United to come from behind to earn a 3-1 win over Everton in front of a club record crowd of 20,241 at Old Trafford for a Women’s Super League match.
Russo’s first-half header cancelled out Claire Emslie’s well-taken strike in the fourth minute. United took the lead from the spot in the second half through the captain and fellow-lifelong United fan Katie Zelem before Russo added her second late on.
It was one year to the day since United’s women’s team had first stepped out on to the pitch at Old Trafford. That was in the midst of the pandemic. One year on, and hours before kick-off, fans buzzed around the Old Trafford perimeter with anticipation. On the 8.20am train from London Euston United shirts were present in every carriage.
From the faces of the players looming large on banners on the ground’s exterior to the tickets given away at local schools, the club pushed for a turnout that would eclipse the team’s record league crowd of 3,797 at Leigh Sports Village and it did not disappoint.
The party mood would be swiftly quelled though. The former Manchester City forward Emslie was set free on the right by Kenza Dali and she coolly slotted past the United goalkeeper, Mary Earps, and in at the far post.
To say the away team taking the lead was a surprise would be an understatement. The Blues had scored just 14 goals and had won just five times in 17 league games prior to kick-off. Meanwhile, United are battling for a place in the Champions League, for the first time, with derby rivals Manchester City, who sit in fourth. City are three points behind the Red Devils, but have a game in hand after the postponement of Sunday’s match with Birmingham due to a Covid outbreak in the Midlands team.
Emslie’s goal was not in the script. Many teams have hosted their biggest WSL or derby rivals in their main stadium but United’s decision to host the inconsistent and flustered Everton at Old Trafford should have been as close to a sure three points as you can get.
United searched for the reply but the visiting team dropped into a solid back five that dealt well with the threat and United were wasteful. In the ninth minute Zelem scooped an effort over the bar after it was worked to her from the right and moments later Russo robbed the centre-back Gabby George, but her shot was straight into the arms of a relieved Sandy MacIver.
In the 35th minute United had the leveller that would breathe life into a flattening match. The right-back, Ona Batlle, sent a cross in and Russo, leaning back, flicked a looping header over an at-sea MacIver.
Shortly after Ella Toone somewhat inexplicably skied a shot over the bar from the edge of the six-yard box, the ball perhaps not bouncing too kindly for her, United took the lead. Lucy Graham, on at half-time in place of Nathalie Björn, lost the ball to Thomas and then clipped the forward’s feet as she tried to recover, conceding a penalty. Zelem stepped up and blasted her spot-kick into the roof of the net.
They should have been two up less than 10 minutes later as Thomas bundled in the rebound after MacIver did well to keep out Maria Thorisdóttir’s effort, but she was ruled offside despite Graham playing her on by a significant margin.
United eventually extended their lead late on, with Russo heading in again, this time from a Zelem corner, and the tensions eased and party atmosphere resumed as the clocked ticked down on a historic outing.