United came into the home game on the back of a close 2-1 win in London against Tottenham that wasn’t overly convincing but the 5-0 win over Durham in the FA Cup had provided a fresh bout of confidence to Marc Skinner’s side. The reverse fixture against the Foxes was only a 1-0 win but that was against Lydia Bedford’s team and the game in Leigh was expected to be a completely new affair.
While Ella Toone had been sent off against Spurs, her suspension had been overturned and she started for United against Leicester. United’s only change from the win in London was the inclusion of Martha Thomas in the place of Nikita Parris, as the rest of the front three included Toone, Leah Galton and Alessia Russo. The backline of Hannah Blundell, Millie Turner, Maya le Tissier and Ona Batlle was protected by the pivot of Katie Zelem and Hayley Ladd.
Days after winning FIFA’s The Best Goalkeeper award, Mary Earps also started between the sticks for Skinner’s side.
United had a firm vice grip over the game from quite early on and a flurry of chances in the 15th minute led to Russo finally putting it into the net and finding a way past Janina Leitzig. Toone had a shot saved some seconds before and Leitzig had saved another attempt before Russo handed United a lead.
Russo was once again at the back post for the 2nd goal in the 35th minute and it was Batlle who set her up, showing a very familiar quality and skill set of hers to constantly motor forward. Toone, while having the ball in midfield, played a perfect through ball to pick out Batlle’s run on the right and the Spaniard hung up a perfect cross for Russo to finish at the back post. United deserved the lead and it spoke volumes for their dominance in the game.
United being poor in possession while playing out from the back had led to a couple of half-chances for the Foxes, but Skinner’s side were unharmed. The 2-0 lead perhaps a papering over United’s weakness of playing out from the back against tight defences.
But that weakness did come to the fore early in the 2nd half and it did lead to a Leicester goal. Remy Siemsen, who many thought was offside, plucked a ball from the air and while she was in-behind when she got her first touch, Turner had recovered slightly by the time the American curled a beautiful left-shot past a helpless Earps. The United stopper was left rooted to the spot.
Just when Leicester could have tried to push on to get an equaliser, United came back into the game quickly. Russo had a chance to seal her hat-trick after Leicester failed to clear a Zelem free-kick properly and the rebound fell to Russo, whose shot was saved well.
But the resulting corner did bring about Russo’s treble. The bright Thomas was unmarked at the front post and her flick-on found Russo free at the back post, allowing the United forward to tap in easily and double United’s lead again.
It was another set-piece that brought about the fourth goal. Zelem took a corner short and played in Toone, whose cross met Russo. The hat-trick hero flicked it at the back for the in-form Galton, who tapped home from close range.
Toone had a golden chance to open her account after Russo, who was through on the right, set up her England teammate but Toone’s shot was blocked by Leitzig.
Leitzig was called into action for a double save again a couple of minutes later. She parried a cross from the right and saved Ladd’s rebound brilliantly as well. Even though Leicester conceded four by that point, the German was arguably their best player in the game. If not for her, the damage could have been much worse for the Foxes.
Late in the game, Lucia Garcia scored her first goal in six games. Isolated with the Leicester right back, the Spaniard cut inside and finished easily into the bottom corner to add United’s fifth. Leicester trying to attack and pull one back led to them leaving themselves exposed at the back and Garcia proved crucial to exploiting that. It only established the gulf in quality between the teo sides.
The win meant that United opened up a four-point gap at the top of the WSL table and while Chelsea have two games in hand, one of their next two games comes against the Reds and that could prove to be a vital point of the campaign.