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Women’s football health check for 2021: Which stars and teams are waning, who’s on the rise and what is the sport’s looming crisis?

Which stars are waning?

Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have had a monopoly on the Women’s Super League’s top three spots since 2015, but that may finally change in 2021. They are not necessarily getting weaker – on the contrary, they are all arguably playing better than ever – but they do appear to have been caught, nonetheless, by Manchester United, who are top of the WSL and currently giving the so-called ‘big three’ their first significant new challenge for years.

United only reformed their senior women’s side after a 13-year absence in 2018, but have quickly climbed into contention for silverware and they are now clearly threatening to dismantle the established order at the top of the English game.

Meanwhile, going in the opposite direction are 2013 and 2014 WSL champions Liverpool. Relegated from the top flight last term, Liverpool were expected to bounce straight back with promotion from the Championship this season.

But they have not found it easy in the second tier so far, sitting third with fewer than half of their games remaining. They are five points behind the leaders Leicester City and took just one point from their two meetings with unbeaten, second-placed Durham. With more and more clubs investing in their women’s teams, Liverpool are now at risk of being left behind.

Which stars are rising?

Manchester United striker Alessia Russo is set for a big year, after impressing following her summer transfer from North Carolina Tar Heels. The 21 year-old made her senior England debut in 2020 and, despite requiring surgery on a hamstring injury in November, the way she led the line for Manchester United earlier in the season suggests she could be one of the sport’s breakthrough stars in 2021. She has already scored three times and provided two assists in just four WSL appearances.

Paris St-Germain’s pacey France forward Marie-Antoinette Katoto is also expected to continue her fine form into the new year. Her goals will be key to her club’s bid to end dominant rivals Lyon’s remarkable run of 14 consecutive French league titles and five straight European crowns. Her goal in November saw PSG beat Lyon, ending their rival’s 80-game unbeaten streak.

Back in England, 20-year-old Lauren Hemp has shown huge potential with Manchester City, netting her second Champions League goal in December, and could be an integral part of the national team’s forward line in the future. With so many top-level players around her at Man City, 2021 could be the year she progresses from being seen as a ‘young player’ to becoming a leading star.

Beyond Covid, what is the sport’s looming crisis?

Despite the game’s progress of late, many facilities are still lagging behind. High professional standards are now being met in terms of coaching personnel, nutrition and fitness regimes, but some WSL clubs still play matches at the equivalent of non-league men’s grounds. They will surely see postponements in the winter months, as pitches endure the worst of the British weather. And that will be a headache for the authorities, especially when a new television rights deal comes into play from 2021-22, with Telegraph Sport understanding WSL games are set to be shown live on BBC One, BBC Two and Sky Sports. Broadcasters will expect a reliable product and a reliable fixture list, with millions of pounds expected to be spent on the rights.

There have been many positive steps taken off the field, with the top clubs enjoying world-class training environments, but that presents a huge gulf between the elite end of the sport and the third tier downwards, where the game still resembles grassroots sport. Investment is needed at all levels of the game, to maintain a competitive pyramid. Giant-killings or shock results of any kind in the Women’s FA Cup are extremely rare, as the gap between the professional clubs and the amateurs widens.

Do not be surprised if… 

Lyon’s reign over Europe finally comes to an end. Betting against the seven-time Women’s Champions League winners – who are bidding for their sixth European title in a row – might appear daft, given their seemingly relentless dominance.

However, their challengers now appear stronger than ever before and a new era could soon be upon us, with the English and Spanish clubs on the rise.

Toppling Lyon, the undisputed Queens of the club women’s game, will not be easy. But English champions Chelsea have assembled arguably the best squad in the world and, in my view, the finest team any British team has produced since Arsenal’s 2007 quadruple. Manchester City are also more than capable of success, boosted by the return of Fifa Best award winner Lucy Bronze.

That 2007 Arsenal team remain England’s only European finalists to date – I believe that will change on Sunday, May 16 2021 at this season’s final in Gothenburg.

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