After last weekend’s disappointing but understandable delay to the start of the season, it was a shame that the Royals had to commence their WSL campaign away to a buoyant and expectant Manchester United team – sporting a pride of England Lionesses and Euro 2022 winners of Alessia Russo, Ella Toone, Mary Earps and Nikita Parris in reserve on the bench.
As the scoreline reflects (especially at half-time), it already feels like a long and difficult battle ahead, and this could possibly be Kelly Chambers' most challenging season for a long while. Reading FC are the only WSL team that doesn’t have a parent employer which enjoys the privilege of a men’s Premier League team and the gap in finances is becoming clearly evident – United with nine substitutes (including an England Euro 2022 international) in comparison to Reading’s six on the bench. The Royals manager may argue that this has always been the case and, as history shows, Kelly Chambers is very good at this and she will need to use all of her galvanising skills again this season.
This was a match in which Reading FC never really got going and they found themselves 4-0 down by half time. Within the first few minutes of the restart my half-time hopes and ambitions were quickly reset and I was ready to settle for a 4-0 defeat with no further goals conceded.
To be fair, the Royals were probably unfortunate with the first two goals conceded. The opener was scored from the first corner of the match, from one of Manchester United’s new signings – Maya Le Tissier, joining from Brighton, within just four minutes of play. The corner appeared to rebound unusually off of Le Tissier’s knee or thigh and loop over the stranded and surprised Grace Moloney. 1-0.
If Grace Moloney wasn’t already disappointed, after 13 minutes she was adjudged to have bought down Alessia Russo, conceding a penalty. Although Russo did get a touch on the ball it did appear a little harsh – as Grace’s similar protestations to referee appeared to confirm. The Manchester United Captain, Katie Zelem, stepped up and struck the ball past the Reading keeper, diving correctly but unsuccessfully to her left. 2-0.
Katie Zelem was one of the busier United players, with the Reds enjoying 12 corners, the majority of these in the first half and confirming their domination. The BBC stats also confirmed this, showing 73% possession to the home team, 24 shots with eight on target - compared to the Royals' two shots (and only one on target). You, however, didn’t need an app to tell you any of this; it was all very visible this afternoon.
The team formation set-up was 3-4-3 with Deanna Cooper, Emma Mukandi (returning from maternity leave and newly married life) and Gemma Evans as the back three. Amalie Eikeland and Lily Woodham (the only yellow card in 65th minute) in the wing back roles and Rachel Rowe and Sanne Troelsgaard the central pairing. Deanne Rose (left) and new signings Lauren Wade (right) and former England Youth International Charlie Wellings (central) leading the charge.
There were very few chances (and very few attacks) for the blue and white hoops but with the score at just 1-0 there was a scrambled half chance that found Charlie Wellings not on her toes, the striker more distracted by her appeals to the referee for a hand ball and penalty rather than concentrating on the opportunity at hand.
There was a further injury blow on 25 minutes, with Deanne Rose leaving the field after going down injured when sprinting away, trying to start a counter attack for the Royals. Natasha Dowie replaced her and took up the central striking role, with Charlie Welling moving over to the right.
No fault of Dowie but almost immediately United made it 3-0 from another Zelem corner. Maya Le Tissier grabbed her brace with a free header into the net. Reading’s first corner of the match, on the half-hour mark, resulted in a rare shot that was blocked at the near post and the closest the Royals came to scoring (the one shot on target). The Reds, however, wrapped it all up before half time with Alessia Russo, again rising far too easily, to head in a Lucia Garcia cross from the right to make it 4-0.
With 20 minutes to go Marc Skinner declared too and packed up and rested some of his best players with Alessia Russo, Lucia Garcia, Ella Toone, Leah Galton and Hayley Ladd all leaving the field of play. Amongst the substitutes was Nikita Parris making her first league team appearance after joining from Arsenal in the summer. Kelly Chambers also made changes with Tia Primmer replacing Sanne Troelsgaard (59 minutes) and a nice touch bringing on academy graduate Madison Perry, with four minutes of additional time to be played, for Lauren Wade.
It’s one match and one defeat against a team looking to finish in the top four and with a business plan and momentum to surely win the league in the near future. Manchester United are not really in the same WSL ‘mini league’ as the Royals but next week’s opponent’s Brighton & Hove Albion are. It’s away, at the Amex Stadium, and should be a more realistic test and early benchmark.
Let’s also not forget that it took Reading FC until their fifth game last season to get up and running and to score their first goals and that turned out okay in the end - so there is certainly no reason to be concerned.