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Manchester United reach historic first Women’s FA Cup final – but have ‘not won anything’ yet

After winning their way to a first Women’s FA Cup final, Manchester United’s double dreams are still alive. Yet they could still finish this remarkable season with nothing.

That was the warning manager Marc Skinner sent following United’s pulsating 3-2 semi-final victory over Brighton on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Leigh.

Just five years after being founded in the second tier Championship, United are heading to Wembley for the first time and are currently top of the Women’s Super League in a remarkable four-team title race.

They could win it all – or finish fourth in the WSL for a fourth successive year, miss out of European qualification, and be denied in the FA Cup final on 14 May by Aston Villa or Chelsea.

Skinner’s message after the game was clear – do not be thinking about Wembley, but about Wednesday, when United host WSL title rivals Arsenal in a hugely significant encounter.

“I don’t want them to miss the opportunity to feel the game, but we haven’t won anything,” he said. “So, get on to your business – you can feel it, but at game time don’t let it distract you.

“That’s the hardest balance, staying focused for a huge challenge on Wednesday and all the others before Wembley.”

Based on this game, United are capable of both winning everything or nothing. They were well off the pace in the first half of their first ever FA Cup semi-final, unsettled by Brighton’s bold pressing and swift counter, and deserved to trail when Mary Earps palmed a shot into her own net.

Certainly, the lapse in defensive concentration that later allowed Brighton’s Danielle Carter to steal in and make it 2-2 did not resemble that of champions.

However, the Leah Galton equaliser seconds after the interval, a world class save by Earps to tip an Elisabeth Terland shot over, and the calmness of Rachel Williams’ winner were all examples of why United stand on the edge of a historic achievement.

It was “the good, the bad and the ugly from us today”, Skinner said. “We conceded two goals we don’t usually, and Brighton were good. It didn’t make it as easy as we wanted, but this team showed again they win when it really has to matter.

“At half-time we had words and agreed the energy needs to be better. When Brighton set up for a goal-kick and we’re walking back and letting them set up, that’s not good enough. When it’s their throw in and we’re walking, it’s not good enough.

“The words were from the players at half-time. It was a question of, was that us, was that our energy? And all the players in unison said no. In the second half they took responsibility.”

They were roared on by a crowd of more than 4,000 at Leigh Sports Village, and Skinner said a win at Wembley was the least their supporters deserved.

A return to Wembley also represents a chance for personal redemption. Skinner led Birmingham City to the 2017 FA Cup final, only to see them beaten 4-1 by Manchester City.

Having had his United contract extended to 2024 over the international break after winning 34 of his first 54 matches in charge, the 40-year-old has plenty of business left to finish.

“It means a massive amount,” he said. “Our fans deserve it, their voice in the second half was insane. I’ve been there [Wembley] before. We lost, I know how it feels. I’m driven to make sure we don’t repeat that.

“I honestly haven’t watched that game [the 2017 final] back. It was a horrible moment. I’ve learned lots from that. I’m happy with my growth and development, and I’m proud of the team today. Getting to the final is good, winning it would be better.”

Brighton manager Melissa Phillips, meanwhile, said she was “unbelievably proud” of her team. The WSL’s bottom side troubled the leaders throughout, but were ultimately undone by the defensive frailties that have seen them ship 50 goals in 15 league matches.

The Seagulls have not beaten a top-flight side since November, when they overcame West Ham 5-4 in the WSL, and were beaten 4-0 home and away by United in the league. However under Phillips, their fourth manager of the season, there is renewed hope.

“I could not be more proud of the attitude the players showed today and how they responded to different moments in the game,” she said.

“We have to handle moments better – they score right after half-time, and when we have a player down. But the attitude is what we wanted to challenge ourselves in and we did that today.”

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