The Premier League era has been defined by the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal.
But whilst Manchester United Men’s team have historically dominated the top flight, it is Arsenal Women who are the traditional power in the FA Women’s Super League.
The record-breaking Gunners boast 15 top flight league titles and 14 FA Cup wins to their name as well as winning the Champions League in 2006/07.
By contrast, Manchester United Women are in just their third year back after a 13-year absence and rapidly closing the gap.
Under the guidance of Casey Stoney, a former Arsenal captain synonymous with their success, they head to north London tonight (18:30) six points clear of her former side.
Stoney’s Red Devils sit third in the table, six points clear of Arsenal, who have a game in hand.
And the stakes have never been higher.
Not only would finishing above Arsenal signal their arrival at the top level, it would also earn Manchester United Women Champions League football for the first time in their history after a revamp of the elite club competition.
“I think we set out very clearly at the beginning of the season that we wanted to try and finish in the top three,” Stoney declares.
But that was much easier said than done.
When last season was cut short, United were 13 points behind Arsenal and well off the pace of the top three.
In line with their big ambitions, they recruited aggressively in the summer, landing big-name American stars Tobin Heath and Christen Press.
It saw them emerge as the early pace-setters this season before injuries hit, with ex-Arsenal captain Faye White amongst those caught by surprise.
“I thought they would do well this season,” White says.
“I expected they’d be able to compete and take points off the top teams but I didn’t quite expect them to be leading the pack for as long as they were and consistently getting results against the top teams.
“I think bringing the Americans in at the time they did would’ve just galvanised the team.”
Beyond their American stars, United had already built a strong foundation of team-work and a rock-solid defence.
“They’ve got that mix of players who really do the hard work and can perform week in, week out, even without getting the attention the stars get,” White says.
“Arsenal have all the stars but there’s sometimes a lack of players who can just work week in, week out, get the job done and win ugly sometimes.
“It’s going to be an exciting game and it’s great that United have been able to match those top teams.”
United’s turning point came when they hosted Arsenal in early November.
Led by Vivianne Miedema, Beth Mead and other big names, the Gunners had scored a remarkable 29 goals in their first five league games.
When they met Stoney’s organised United side, their goalscoring run came to an abrupt end and it was the new kids on the block who emerged with a 1-0 win.
“I think we knew we were capable of doing that,” recalls United defender Amy Turner.
“We’d played Arsenal previous to that and we felt like that was very much achievable, but saying you can do it then doing it are two different things.
“We grew a lot in confidence from that game, for sure, and that was definitely one of the highlights of the season so far if you ask the players.”
Turner has been part of United’s ambitious journey from the beginning, joining them in 2018 when still in the Championship.
The vice-captain has been vital to their journey to knocking on the door of the Champions League with six games left to play.
“When we set out in the Championship it was never a one year plan, it was always looking ahead to this point,” she reflects.
“We knew we had a strong squad, we knew we had a brilliant coaching staff behind the scenes.
“It’s a nice position to be in, but I don’t think we’ve surprised ourselves by being here and I think it’s testament to how hard we’ve worked since year one.
“We’ve always been preparing for potential Champions League football, and it’s brilliant that it’ll hopefully come around in our third season.
“It’s a great feeling, but also we’re not quite there yet. We’ve had a good season so far but that’s lots to build on, lots to work on and we’re hoping for a strong finish as well.”
It has been a rapid rise for one of the world’s biggest clubs after stamping themselves on the women’s game.
“I’d have to say we’re probably a year ahead in terms of where we’re at, but I’m not surprised,” Stoney states.
“I see the players’ work rate day in, day out, I see the staff that I’ve got around me and we’re an ambitious team and I’m an ambitious coach.
“My players would tell you I drive them to standards that we can achieve Champions League football, that’s what we do every day.
“If we do achieve it, it would be a fantastic achievement but it’s just one step on the road.”
Victory over Arsenal tonight would put them firmly in the driving seat to achieve their European dream.
What would it mean to finish above the traditional powerhouse of the women’s game?
“It would mean we achieved our objectives,” Stoney says.
“It would mean we’ve qualified for Europe and it’s another step in the direction we want to go in.
“In three years, is it a good journey we’ve been on? Yes. But it won’t be done until we’ve got that third place and there’s six games to go.
“We are very much on that journey at the moment. We know it’s difficult, we know Arsenal’s track record, but someone has to break in there so we’re going to have a real good go at it.”
United are wary the Gunners will not give up without a fight and are preparing to be posed different questions four months on from their season-defining win.
“I think this game is a completely different proposition,” Turner says.
“There’s potentially more at stake in this game, we’re away from home, and I’m sure Arsenal have redemption in their minds as well.
“But as a team we’ve grown from then. We played the home game in early November, we’ve come so far as a group since then, and we know we’ll have to step it up again.
“A lot of the messages will be the same as that game, and we did things well, but we’re also looking at areas we can build on as well. We’re not going to just rest on that.”
Both sides know exactly what is at stake in the race for European competition.
“It’d be huge, because it’s the competition the top players want to play in,” White says when asked what it would mean if her former club missed out.
“Obviously when you’re not doing that it becomes harder to keep your top players or they might get their heads turned elsewhere.
“It’s important not just for the status of the club but also in terms of the future of players staying at Arsenal and feeling they are competing on all fronts.”
For Stoney and United, the Champions League is a trump card they know could help accelerate their progress even further.
“It is big, because players want to play in it,” Stoney says.
“If you’re in it, it can give you the edge. When it comes to a player deciding between two clubs, it can sometimes be the defining factor.
“We’ve still managed at this time to recruit fantastic players despite not being in it, so I think that shows where we’re at as a club.
“But obviously having Champions League would make my conversations as a head coach with a player easier.
“I think when I was playing it was still something you wanted to play in, something you wanted to be involved in, but I don’t think the profile was great.
“I think the magnitude of the event now and the profile of the competition, the fact it’s got it’s own slot and UEFA are looking at how they can really capitalise on that final and make sure in terms of the group stages there is more investment.
“It means that for the women’s game it’s the absolute pinnacle in terms of European football, so as a coach you want to be in and around it and as a player, they want to play in it.”
Regardless of tonight’s outcome, Manchester United and Arsenal look destined for plenty of huge encounters in the years to come.
United’s arrival at the top level finally gives the Women’s Super League a ‘big four’ of its own, something which can only be viewed as a positive for the competition.
“It’s the first ever time we’ve had people fighting off in terms of trying to qualify for a top three, because we’ve never had it before,” Stoney explains.
“There’s always been two teams, really, in a race and sometimes one has run away with it, but to have four teams so tight this season, I think it can only bode well and be exciting for the women’s game.”
The excitement will be on full display at Boreham Wood tonight with huge ramifications for both clubs and United looking to take a huge step in their quest to outdo their esteemed rivals.
This season BT Sport is showing more Barclays FA Women’s Super League matches than ever before. Watch Arsenal v Man Utd on BT Sport 2 from 6pm on Friday 19 th March.