Arsenal grabbed the race for the third and final Women’s Champions League spot by the horns as they claimed a priceless victory over top-three rivals Manchester United despite spending the final half an hour with 10 players.
England winger Beth Mead was sent off for two quick-fire yellow cards, shortly after defender Lotte Wubben-Moy had powerfully headed home to put Arsenal 2-0 up from Katie McCabe’s corner, having taken the lead through Millie Turner’s early own goal.
Victory was Arsenal’s third in a row but perhaps the most important of manager Joe Montemurro’s entire tenure, after a hot-tempered match that could ultimately define both team’s medium-term futures.
Starting the night six points behind United but with a game in hand and a far greater goal-difference, Arsenal knew that a win would put the battle for third firmly into their hands and they took control of the midfield battle early on.
Casey Stoney’s visitors knew a draw or better for them would mean they simply had to match Arsenal’s results for the remainder of the campaign in order to finish above the north London club for the first time, break into a top three that has been completely dominated by Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal since 2015, and make their European debut next term.
Under the greater pressure to go for victory, Arsenal began the game with a notable urgency and intensity and forced a priceless opening goal inside three minutes, when Australia forward Caitlin Foord slipped the ball through to Netherlands midfielder Jill Roord in the box and her deflected effort looped into the far corner off United centre-back Turner, who was unfortunate to be awarded the own goal.
Stoney’s fired-up team responded and United States star Christen Press placed a shot straight at Manuela Zinsberger, before having another effort blocked after Ella Toone’s cut-back and then later curled wide, while 19-year-old striker Lauren James blazed over with a gilt-edged chance.
The friction and rivalry between the teams was clear to see, with tempers occasionally threatening to boil over. Arsenal left-back Katie McCabe was having a tense, physical tussle with United forward Toone, as the visitors appeared anxious that they were not tactically in control of the contest to the extent they were in November’s reverse fixture, which England’s Toone had settled with the only goal late on.
Both sides have endured a series of injuries to key players this term and Friday’s game was no different, with Arsenal defender Leah Williamson picking up a quad injury in training and United forward Alessia Russo’s return being delayed, with her team-mates Tobin Heath and Leah Galton still out.
Williamson’s usual centre-back partner and fellow lifelong Arsenal fan, Wubben-Moy, stamped Arsenal’s authority on the contest as she headed in after the break, not long before Mead was dismissed for a second booking after a late challenge on Lucy Staniforth.
United looked to capitalise and Toone had the ball in the net on 81 minutes, but the flag was up for offside, and a rock-solid Wubben-Moy helped the hosts’ defence stand firm.
Despite being a player down, Arsenal were strong enough to hold out the visitors and they would now leapfrog Man Utd into third spot if they win their game-in-hand at home to West Ham, the date for which has not yet been agreed, with Stoney’s young side – who were top at Christmas – left to wonder what might have been.
Arsenal Women (4-3-3): Zinsberger 6; Maritz 7, Wubben-Moy 9, Walti 6, McCabe 7; Van de Donk 6 (Nobbs 86), Little 8 (Patten 86), Roord 7 (Gut 82); Mead 7, Miedema 6 (Evans 90+1), Foord 7.
Substitutes not used: Patten, Nobbs, Evans, Williams (g), Maier, Gut, Stenson (g).
Booked: McCabe, Walti.
Sent off: Mead (62).
Manchester United Women (4-2-3-1): Earps 6; Harris 6, A Turner 5, M Turner 6, Batlle 7; Zelem 6, Staniforth 6; Toone 6, Groenen 6 (Ladd 82), James 7 (Sigsworth 62); Press 6.
Substitutes not used: Thorisdottir, Sigsworth, Ladd, Hanson, Ross, Smith, Bentley, Jones, Bourne.
Referee: Amy Fearn (Loughborough).