Manchester United’s Casey Stoney said she was “gutted” and her team “devastated” after a desperate late Daniëlle van de Donk goal, snatched on the rebound amid relentless Arsenal pressure, denied a stunningly resilient home team the first point of their maiden Women’s Super League campaign.
“I’m gutted to be honest, not for myself but for the players because I don’t think they deserved it,” said Stoney. I thought they deserved more out of the game.”
It is rare for promoted side to give any league’s champions a run for their money (though Norwich’s men’s team showed how on Saturday) but United’s climb into the Women’s Super League is no ordinary ascent. The home team spent all last season preparing for their chance to compete against the biggest clubs in the newly professional top tier and it showed here as they attempted to shake the established order.
United’s 2-1 Continental League Cup defeat by Arsenal last season had given them a taste of what facing the champions would entail and they had clearly learned the lessons. Only an excellent goal by Caroline Weir was able to break their resolve in their opening fixture against Manchester City and they almost held out against Arsenal.
“Relief,” said Joe Montemurro at full time. “A lot of teams are going to find it very difficult here because they are a very good side and we knew it was going to be difficult backing up the Champions League. There was probably a little bit of fatigue in the first half, but second half I thought we were brilliant.”
In the first half the home team came out looking determined and a raucous crowd, cheering and jeering aplenty, was buoyed by their team pressing the visiting side hard.
Arsenal are having their first taste of Champions League football and their leggy start could possibly have been attributed to their 4-0 defeat of Fiorentina on Thursday night.
“It’s a new experience for us and to be brutally honest we are still getting used to it, it was a long week,” said Montemurro. There was cause for celebration for Arsenal though, with Jordan Nobbs returning to the starting line up for the first time since rupturing an ACL in November 2018.
In the 38th minute the away side found the pass they had been looking for and it characteristically came from Kim Little, who clipped a clever ball to Lisa Evans and the winger swung a cross towards the head of Vivianne Miedema – her smart header was fantastically saved by England goalkeeper Mary Earps at point-blank range. Miedema latched onto the rebound but it was from an acute angle and straight at Earps.
In the second half Arsenal moved through the gears, but still failed to find the threaded pass they so often rely on to crack teams open. It was the home team that looked to have made the breakthrough when Jane Ross was played through one-on-one, but the Scottish forward hesitated, giving Manuela Zinsberger time to come out and smother the shot.
Minutes later and Arsenal had their best chance of the half but again Earps was equal to the test. Little weaved her way across the edge of the box, saw a sliver of an opening and struck, Earps pushed the ball away and then threw her body back across goal for the follow-up.
With one minute left on the clock the substitute Van de Donk, on for Nobbs, prodded the ball home after Leah Williamson’s shot from distance rebounded off the massed United defenders, a crushingly difficult defeat for a bright home side.
The goalscorer said she was “buzzing” after coming off the bench to steal the win. “You know what? They [her teammates] did all the work and I took the glory so it can’t be any better,” she said.
“To be fair I felt like it was coming. We had a lot of chances and I think it came after three shots on goal, Viv hit the post, I was like: ‘Come on guys, please put it in the goal’, happily it fell at my feet and it went in. It was a bit bouncy bouncy bouncy in, so it was a bit lucky as well.”
Stoney, though, was philosophical about their two defeats: “I just said to them [the players] that it’s about fine margins, it really is.
“And that’s actually a really positive place to be, the fact that we’re talking about fine margins, and we’re playing Arsenal and Man City, when we’ve effectively been with the new players for seven weeks, and we got together 14 months ago. These teams are established.”