Coombs rescues Manchester derby draw as United protest missed handball

Sport

Manchester United came agonisingly close to a first derby win after the referee waved away Lucía García’s furious penalty appeals in the dying minutes when the Manchester City defender Alex Greenwood nudged the ball towards the goalkeeper, Ellie Roebuck, with her hand as she fell in the box.

“I honestly haven’t seen it, I hear everyone on the bench screaming,” United’s manager, Marc Skinner, said. “In all reality I probably want us to get ahead of that sooner anyway.”

Expectations of a thrilling Women’s Super League finale to 2022 in Manchester were high going into this match. It did not disappoint in front of the WSL’s second-highest crowd of 44,259.

The frustration, though, will be that, without VAR in the WSL, there was little the referee, Abigail Byrne, could do when the late penalty incident viewed on screens up and down the country showed what her line of sight could not.

“It looked like a really good challenge from Alex,” the City manager, Gareth Taylor, said. “We should’ve dealt with the play better than we did. We gave them an opportunity.”

United had failed to beat City in five attempts in the WSL before this meeting at the Etihad Stadium, losing three times and drawing twice, but they were far from the underdogs.

The Red Devils have been sublime this season, exceeding expectations to mount a title challenge when the target in many minds was making the top three and entering the Champions League for the first time.

Instead Skinner’s side have matched Arsenal and Chelsea in enduring only one defeat before the winter break, by Emma Hayes’s team. They have also been scoring goals aplenty and, critically, keeping pace with Chelsea and Arsenal in terms of goal difference.

Despite his side’s stuttering start to the season, with back-to-back league defeats following an exit from Champions League qualifying, Taylor has bedded in City’s seven summer signings and the team have won nine games in a row in all competitions. Five of those signings were in the starting XI to face United.

It was a frenetic start here and United, fizzing with confidence that is increasingly familiar, took the lead in the 27th minute and it was deserved. The forward Leah Galton brushed aside the challenge of Laia Aleixandri and played a one-two with Ella Toone before sweeping the ball through the legs of Greenwood and in.

City fought back after the break and the players were rewarded on 58 minutes, with the forward Bunny Shaw’s near-post run leaving Laura Coombs unmarked to head in Chloe Kelly’s cross from the right. Coombs has now been involved directly in six goals (four goals and two assists) in nine league games this season, her best in a WSL campaign with only half the season played.

This was a textbook Manchester derby. In this fixture last season, despite a strong performance from the visiting side, a goal from the now departed Caroline Weir gave City the win in the 81st minute. While, at Leigh Sports Village, United came from a goal down to lead 2-1 before City levelled in the 79th minute.

Skinner’s side had shown they could fight back against the league’s top sides with the 3-2 defeat of an injury-hit Arsenal in November, but could they do it against a resurgent City side that is looking to quietly claw its way back into contention at the top? The answer was: almost. It was end‑to‑end –“a bit too much like a basketball match at the end for my liking”, said Taylor – but, as García and Greenwood slid to the ground, the latter’s fingers pushed the ball into the safe arms of Roebuck and Byrne waved away the fuming protestations of García.

Despite failing to claw more than a point closer to Arsenal in third, Taylor was confident. “We’re looking further than [Champions League qualification], we want to win the league,” he said. “We win all our games in the second half of the season, and we can win the league.”

For Skinner, there were positives to take, too, despite the run of games without a win against City extending. “I think there’s a change in this game,” he said. “We’re frustrated with the result but not the performance.

“They’ve come off not feeling like they’ve had to defend for their lives like they perhaps did sometimes last season. They’ve come and felt like they wanted and needed to win that game. So it’s a really great mentality shift – that is only going to serve us well in the future.”