The mark of champions is that no matter how tough the game is, how poorly they play or however well their opponents perform, they find a way to win.
On this basis, Manchester United are looking more and more like potential Women’s Super League champions.
Their victory at Aston Villa was chaotic, dramatic and – given the hosts hit the bar twice alongside Rachel Daly’s double – more than a little fortunate.
The outcome is, however, that they are six points clear at the top of the WSL. With Manchester City not playing until Sunday, while Chelsea and Arsenal are not in league action this weekend, they have ramped up the points pressure on their rivals.
“I don’t think my heart can take any more of that!” United manager Marc Skinner told BBC Three after the game. “Look, first half we were not good enough.
“We didn’t raise the intensity and Villa were all over us. We played into their hands, we tried to play a style of football rather than the game itself. Second half we addressed that.
“With this team we find a way, and we found a way again tonight.”
Skinner went through every conceivable emotion on Friday night – dejection at Daly finding space from a corner inside the opening 10 minutes to score the first goal United have conceded from a set-piece this season; anger at Hayley Ladd’s header shortly before half-time being disallowed for a questionable foul on the keeper; and finally pure joy at Millie Turner’s late winner.
The 40-year-old deserved his joy after his substitutes swung the game – he changed United’s front three on 77 minutes which gave them extra impetus, before bringing on centre back Turner for Aoife Mannion in the final throes proved a masterstroke.
“That’s how titles are won in leagues like this,” former Brighton defender Fern Whelan told Five Live Sports Extra. “They didn’t give up, the game was never lost for them.
“They carried on pushing, made that triple substitution, made another one and it paid dividends for them.”
Often it is United’s forwards, such as England heroes Alessia Russo and Ella Toone, who get the star billing. However, when the game was won they were both on the bench, Toone with her head down and clearly frustrated by her ineffective display.
Instead it was another United academy product in Turner who stepped up to save the day, and potentially their title charge.
While Turner has been key in United’s formidable back line – they have the best defensive record in the league, now only conceding 11 goals in 19 games – she also has form at the other end, scoring in the final few minutes of the 3-2 win over Arsenal at Emirates Stadium last November .
This was clearly remembered by the United coaching staff, as Turner revealed after the final whistle.
“It was Wilko, he said ‘Mil go and win us the game, we’ll get a set piece and we’ll win it, just time your run’ and I did that,” she said.
While this was a sickening loss for Villa, for who Lucy Staniforth dominated the midfield and Daly once again proved near unstoppable in attack, victory for United should be welcomed by the neutral for ensuring the WSL title race remains beautifully poised.
City, Chelsea and Arsenal all have games in hand on United – the Blues have only played 16 matches, three fewer than the leaders – but Skinner’s side have their work done while the others play catch-up.
“If I was United, I’d rather have the points on the board,” former England manager Hope Powell told BBC Three. “Chelsea have got a lot of work to do, they’ve got to win their games. United are definitely in the driving seat, it will come down to the wire.”
Fellow pundit Fara Williams agreed: “I think Chelsea have winnable games, they have a good run-in. But it’s now the back end of the season, players are starting to get tired, and they have many more games to play between now and the end of the season.
“United are in the better position because the points are on the board.”
It looks like 21 May – when Chelsea host Arsenal and City visit United – could be the day of destiny for the four title hopefuls.
Reigning champions Chelsea do also have the advantage of experience. United, whose women’s team were formed only five years ago, are seeking a maiden WSL crown as well as a domestic double – they face the Blues in the FA Cup final next month.
However, since losing away to Chelsea in March, United have since won four consecutive league games. They have the momentum – now supercharged by that late show in Walsall.