“To be honest, I don’t normally celebrate goals,” says Alessia Russo. However after the Manchester United forward sent a looping header over Sandy MacIver to draw her team level against Everton at the end of March, the 23-year-old clenched her fists and yelled in delight as teammate Martha Thomas leapt into her arms. It was an uncharacteristic celebration and in many ways she looked like she didn’t know what to do, but the occasion warranted one.
Russo, a lifelong United supporter, had scored at Old Trafford in front of 20,241 fans, including her family and friends. She went on to score a second to give United a 3-1 victory that would keep them three points clear of Manchester City and their race for the Champions League alive. City have a game in hand though.
“It was a really special occasion,” she says. “The whole day really, from the minute we got there until I left and drove home. To be a United fan and to play at the Theatre of Dreams was amazing. And to have all my friends and family there and to have the fans there – I think we’ve owed it to them to play there and put on a performance for them.”
United showed resilience that day. In the previous game, they had conceded late to West Ham to draw 1-1 and after Claire Emslie’s fourth minute opener for Everton at Old Trafford they could have have crumbled. But they didn’t.
You stay calm in that moment, Russo says, because “as players we all know that when you play any team in this league there’s no easy game. Everton maybe aren’t sitting where they want to be in the league, but they still have such quality players and I think we always knew that they could pose a threat.
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“It just shows you that you can never switch off in this league. We’ve always had a belief in the squad and in the dressing room, in each other, and I think that that really showed at the Old Trafford game. We just stayed positive and focused on the rest of the game.”
The two goals at Old Trafford were the highlight of a month in which she scored four times in four games to be named the WSL Barclays Player of the Month for March. “It’s nice to receive [individual awards],” she says, “but, at the same time, I know in myself that there’s a lot more work to be done.”
After a blistering start to last season, Russo missed much of the campaign with a hamstring injury that required surgery. Now, she is back to her best with nine league goals already, putting her third in the race for the golden boot behind Sam Kerr and Vivianne Miedema.
“Obviously last year was tough, but that’s football, injuries are just a part of the sport,” she says “So, you have to just bide your time and focus on the good things to come. Now I’m really enjoying my football and enjoying being around the girls on the pitch every day and playing every week. I’m loving the pressure that we’ve got to end the season. I think it’ll be a great end for the whole league. There’s still so much to play for.”
Under the manager, Marc Skinner, who arrived in the summer, she is learning a lot too. “This is the first season I’ve properly played as a No 9 in a professional league, and he’s helped me learn and grow and we’ve been focusing a lot on a lot of stuff,” she says. “He is really pushing my game and that’s what I want from him, I want him to make me the best player I can be and he knows that he can push me in order to do that.”
Impressive performances from United at times this season, and the club’s rapid rise, is reflected in the number of players in contention for England. There were four from the red half of Manchester in Sarina Wiegman’s most recent squad for the World Cup qualifiers against North Macedonia and Northern Ireland. Now, Russo is in the hunt for a place in her 23-player squad for the home Euros, when the opening game will be played at … Old Trafford.
“Obviously it’s such an honour to be called up to your national team and it would be unbelievable to go [to the Euros],” she says. “But all I can focus on is my own performance and my own work ethic leading up to the summer. We only have three games left but I’ve got loads of sessions left to improve in. England’s full of top talent at the minute so I’ve just got to keep working hard and see what happens.”
Alessia Russo is the Barclays WSL player of the month for March. Read our interview with February’s player of the month, Ashleigh Neville, here.