Can Man Utd or Everton beat Chelsea, Man City or Arsenal to a Women’s Champions League place?

Seven years. That’s how long it’s been since a club other than Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester City finished in the top three of the Women’s Super League.

In that time, they’ve simply dominated all below them. In 263 league games against the rest of the division, the ‘big three’ have lost a combined 11 times.

That outlines just how difficult it will be for a club to break the stronghold they have on the top of the league. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t clubs with the aim, and potential, to do so.

Manchester United and Everton made no secret of their ambitions last season. Both wanted to break into those UEFA Women’s Champions League spots. Both showed signs they could.

United took points from Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal in the first half of the campaign. They were top at Christmas. But injuries and points dropped to those below them proved costly in the New Year.

“I think for us, consistency is a huge thing,” Man Utd captain Katie Zelem said ahead of the new season. “We got some great results against what you would call the top three, but for us it’s about maintaining our standards, no matter who we play.

“It’s making sure that it’s not just the big games that you focus on, but every single game you play contributes to getting in the Champions League.”

United ended the season in fourth, one point behind Arsenal. Since then, there’s been a lot of change. 

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Head coach Casey Stoney left, and Marc Skinner has replaced her. Ten players have also departed, most notably Lauren James, who has joined Chelsea, and the U.S. women’s national team duo of Tobin Heath and Christen Press.

The club has made some good additions – Norway’s talented midfielder Vilde Boa Risa is the most eye-catching of the five – but there is a question mark over the depth of their forward line.

With a new manager, too, there is always uncertainty over how things might go. And Skinner, who closed the gap to the big guns during time at Birmingham, is under no illusions of what is required of him.

“We (Birmingham) challenged because we believed in each other,” he said at his unveiling as United’s new boss. “We closed the gap because we believed in what we were doing and we knew that we had to fight against some financial might.

“It’s about making sure we have the most together team on the field. I think that’s what’s the most exciting thing about being at Manchester United. Not only can we have the support away from the ground and away from what we’re doing on the field, but also on the field, we’re free to invent who we are.

“We’re at a club that wants to be successful. It’s putting everything in place to crave the successes that come from winning titles, that come from winning cups and that’s part of the reason that I came here as well.”

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The position that Everton find themselves in is very different. They showed signs last year of being able to shake up the establishment, beating Chelsea in the Women’s FA Cup and taking Man City to extra time in the final.

However, in the league, they lost all six games against the ‘big three’, finishing 16 points off the European spots.

“There was already a lot of quality at the club,” England international Toni Duggan, who returned to her childhood club this summer after leaving Atletico Madrid, said. “They had a great year last year. But I think to take that next step, we needed more experienced players. Also, bringing winners in.”

All nine of the players Everton have brought in during the transfer window are regular senior internationals, many with experience of winning titles and playing in Europe.

“We’ve definitely gone to the next level in that respect,” Duggan added. “Now, on the pitch, we need to take that to the next level as well.”

The key factor in all of this, though, remains Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City. Are there any signs that one member of the ‘big three’ might fall short and open the door for the chasing pack?

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Chelsea have added centre-back depth to an already star-studded squad, though there are questions at full-back.

Man City have had one of the best transfer windows in the league, but do have injuries to key players in Lucy Bronze and Chloe Kelly.

Arsenal have impressed in their early Champions League outings under new boss Jonas Eidevall, too.

There is also the fact that the rest of the league in general is making huge strides. The transfer window has indicated as much, with Reading, who finished seventh last year, signing Canada’s Olympic gold medallist Deanne Rose and West Ham, who staved off relegation, securing the services of Yui Hasegawa, whose name was linked with Barcelona and Real Madrid.

As Zelem says, it’s not just about United, and Everton, or beating the ‘big three’. Maintaining consistency against those below them will be tougher than ever – as it will be for Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City, too.

Questions have long been asked of the WSL and its competitiveness. As the league prepares for its biggest ever season, following an historic television deal with Sky Sports and the BBC, it looks better placed than ever to make huge steps forward.

An incredible battle at the top will certainly help too.

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