Three matches without victory in all competitions for the WSL champions precede their quarter-final tie with Swedish champions Linkoping
Manchester City enter Women's Champions League quarter-final aiming to return to winning ways
It is the sort of statement which sounded obvious but a scenario that is actually a rarity. As Manchester City’s manager Nick Cushing reflected on the Uefa Women’s Champions League quarter-finals, he concluded: “This is probably the best eight teams in Europe now, barring maybe a Bayern Munich.”
For the second successive year, City are among those eight. They are hoping to make it consecutive semi-final appearances. They host the Swedish champions Linkoping on Wednesday night, before next Wednesday’s return leg.
They do with Cushing believing they have improved over the past year. Once again, it is something that may appear obvious. Delve into the details, however, and it feels more of an achievement.
City lost two of their premier players, Lucy Bronze to Lyon and Toni Duggan to Barcelona, last summer – their respective new clubs clash in the heavyweight quarter-final – while their flagship signing Pauline Bremer has been out since October with a broken leg.
“This year we have probably played better football than we have ever played,” Cushing said. “We are a more adaptable team. We have got more youth. We play a little freer.” They will play without the top scorer in the English league on Wednesday, as Izzy Christiansen serves a ban.
“When we lose someone who has played a bulk of games for us, it is going to be a miss,” Cushing said. Georgia Stanway and Claire Emslie are potential replacements, while Christiansen’s absence may place more of an emphasis on the January arrival Nadia Nadim.
“We need to give Nadia time to adapt to how we play and our expectations,” Cushing added. “She had a good impact when she first came in but she has probably had a dip in performance.”
So have City. Besides injuries – and captain Steph Houghton is set to miss out again – a packed fixture list, with complications caused by international call-ups and travel when they had seven successive away games are other mitigating factors. Chelsea have leapfrogged them to top the Women’s Super League while they lost the Continental Cup final to Arsenal last week.
“This team has shown an unbelievable resilience,” Cushing said. “When you get into such a consistency of winning and when you lose a game it is a shock to the system. But there is no better place to start winning again than the Champions League.”
Linkoping, in their first quarter-final since 2015, present tough opposition. “They are a very economical team, a very hard, robust team,” said Cushing.
They will contain familiar faces. This is a reunion with Kosovare Asllani, the Swede who spent a year and a half with City. “She was a great player and a person to have around the squad,” midfielder Keira Walsh said. “She has a lot of quality on the ball and is not afraid to put a tackle in.”
Striker Natasha Dowie, meanwhile, has been an international teammate of some of the City contingent. One of City’s phalanx of England players may again have a watching brief. Karen Bardsley has been the first-choice goalkeeper for her country but has had an injury-hit season. The 18-year-old Ellie Roebuck was preferred for the Continental Cup final.
Cushing has another decision to make. He hinted the teenager will be preferred. “We can’t hide from the strategy we have here,” he said. “We played Keira at 17 in 2014 because we believed not only would she give us the chance of winning the trophy. We believe she could develop into one of England’s best players.
"We also believe that about Ellie Roebuck, Esme Morgan, Georgia Stanway and Ella Toone. We will consistently try and develop British players because it is what we believe. I just hope we have the opportunity to do that as freely as we want to.”
It underlined the ethos running through the team. That faith in youth brings the promise of better days in the future. City hope this will be one of them.