Nick Cushing says his Manchester City are “underdogs” in their Champions League semifinal against Lyon on Sunday but believes his team’s form has been good despite their first FA WSL win in four games on Wednesday night.
French champions Lyon are aiming for a historic third consecutive Champions League title and will be looking for a repeat result of last year’s semifinal when the pair met in major competition for the first time.
Lyon ran out 3-2 winners on aggregate after a first leg 3-1 win in Manchester and Cushing accepts his side are in for a big challenge.
“Our form has been good but results have been up and down and we’re into this game in a bit of a different situation,” said Cushing. “But we’ve got more experience now, we’ve played Lyon three times in twelve months so we’re excited for this game.”
Despite Lyon’s status as the best in Europe, the last two games between the sides have ended in a win for Cushing’s side.
Carli Lloyd’s strike ensured an impressive 1-0 win in the second leg of last year’s tie before a 3-2 win in France during the preseason in the Toulouse International Ladies Cup, with midfielder Izzy Christiansen scoring two of the goals.
“The message to the team has been the same, that result last year shows that nobody is untouchable,” added Cushing. “In football we all know nobody always wins so at some point they will taste defeat. We know we’re underdogs and it’s almost a free hit for us because people don’t expect us to beat this team.”
A Continental Cup final loss to Arsenal and their first league defeats in almost three years against Birmingham City and Reading, as well as an FA Cup semifinal defeat to Chelsea, has left Man City looking at the prospect of a trophy-less season.
But despite recent setbacks, Cushing believes his team have been in good form but have wasted chances at key moments.
“We’ve learned we have the ability to dominate teams with the ball,” he said. “We’ve been good in every game; our form has been good. At Birmingham we dominated the ball but didn’t create any chances, against Reading we gave away two sloppy goals, and at Chelsea we played really well. We’re in form, we just need to make sure we take those opportunities and don’t give poor goals away.
“In the Champions League, particularly, we’ve played really, really well. We know it’s going to be difficult, they’re the best in the world, defending champions, but we know we’re a good team as well. We just have to play the way we play, we won’t change the way we play because we’ve been successful. We want to play against the best and two semifinals in a row shows we’re one of the best, but we know we have a lot of improvements to be made.”
It’s a sentiment that experienced midfielder and recent PFA Women’s Player of the Year nominee Jill Scott echoes.
The 31-year-old reached a quarterfinal with Everton and has played a key role in both of City’s European campaigns so far.
“The momentum might not be with us right now but we’ve played well in Europe,” said Scott. “I still believe in this squad massively and hopefully we can go out on Sunday and show the fans what we can do.
“Last year everyone talked about it being our debut season but we’ve got experience now and I’m excited for it. I think about that first leg a lot, they played very well that day and if you don’t get in their faces, they’ll pick you off. I think we gave them a little bit too much respect, so we’ll learn our lessons from that and hopefully we can put in a better performance.”
Scott has won every domestic medal in the book during her four years at Manchester City but a Champions League medal is something that continues to elude her and the midfielder admits recent big-game defeats have hurt.
“It’s a dream, isn’t it? To get to a Champions League final, that’s one medal we’d all like to have. We definitely want to make that final but we can’t look any further than this game right now.
“The older you get, the more it seems to hurt because finals don’t come around as much. It drives me on personally, we were very hurt after the Arsenal and Chelsea games. Wembley last year was one of the best days of our lives, but we’ve got a semifinal and in a good position in the league, we just have to give it our all. It’s been a long season and we’ve been tired at times but we want to carry on and show people why we want to play for this club.”
While injuries have plagued large parts of Manchester City’s season, Cushing is hopeful he has a fully fit squad to select from bar the long-term absentees of Megan Campbell and Pauline Bremer.
Admitting he has some “bumps and bruises” in his squad and doubts over Steph Houghton’s fitness after the captain went off injured against Sunderland on Wednesday, Cushing says City have “adapted the training” after Houghton, Scott, Mel Lawley, and goalkeepers Karen Bardsley and Ellie Roebuck sat out Friday morning’s session.
“The squad is as fresh as it can be,” Cushing said. “Not everyone trained because the schedule we’ve had but it is what it is; having a league game so close to a game against one of the best in the world isn’t ideal but I can’t change that.”
Meanwhile, Scott will dash off after Sunday’s game with several of her teammates for the annual PFA Player Awards held in London on Sunday night.
Of the six nominees for the main award — voted for by fellow FA WSL players — Scott is the only non-Chelsea player to be nominated.
“It’s an honor, especially up against players you come up against every week,” said the midfielder. “I was surprised to be in there, players here like Jen [Beattie], Demi [Stokes] and others have performed consistently but I feel very lucky. It’s always a bit weird in a team sport because without your teammates you couldn’t perform like you do, but I’m looking forward to going to the awards.”
Teammate Stokes, meanwhile, is the only City player to feature in the PFA Team of the Year, but Cushing didn’t seem overly bothered about a lack of representation for his players.
“It’s a player’s vote and they will vote as they see fit and everyone’s entitled to that,” he said. “My view is irrelevant really, but I agree with Jill, we’ve had some really consistent performers. But it’s a competitive league with teams like Chelsea and Arsenal and it’s a player’s vote.”
Cushing, though, is pleased to see three of his young players — Georgia Stanway, Keira Walsh, and Ellie Roebuck — nominated for the young player of the year award.
“I’m pleased to see the youngsters in,” said the manager. “We’ve won PFA Player of the Year at Manchester City the last two years so you’ve got to give someone else a chance, haven’t you?
“We want to improve our young players so I suppose to see them nominated is a good thing but we just want to keep putting them into games, into situations where they’re going to improve and hopefully they can reach their potential.”
In particular, 18-year-old Roebuck could be set for her 13th straight start should she be in the eleven against Lyon on Sunday after coming in for an injured Karen Bardsley against Chelsea at the start of February.
It’s left the former City and England No. 1 without a single minute for either club or country since then and could leave her chances of a World Cup call-up next summer in jeopardy should the situation not change.
But Cushing says his players have to “accept competition” and believes his players do accept that competition from the younger players in the squad.
“If you understand the game and play as long as KB and Jill and Steph [Houghton] have played then you know the young players are always going to rival you. The thing I say to the players is the game changes quickly. We have Jane [Ross] who sits on the bench for four or five games, she gets a chance and starts scoring goals.
“Izzy [Christiansen] picks up an injury and then Georgia [Stanway] comes in and takes her chance, the game changes. KB is training hard, she’s being patient and when she gets her chance I’m sure she’ll take it, but that’s the game.”
While all eyes are set firmly on Sunday’s game with Lyon, Cushing also admits the tricky schedule City have been left with is down to their own competitiveness across the season with two league games to be rescheduled before the end of the season.
“We need more time on the training pitch to push these players, to coach them, and to demand more of them. But at the same time, we’ve been competitive in four trophies so we’re creating the busy schedule for ourselves. I’ve said before I don’t know the answer, I’m not sitting here saying it’s easy and we’re not blaming the FA, it’s difficult and we get that. We’re all working together to find a solution.”
He added, “We’ve got a young team and some young players. Ellie, Georgia, Keira, Abbie [McManus], Nikita [Parris]. We need to keep demanding more from them and they’re going through a lot of experiences which will benefit us in the long run. We’ve got two trophies to play for which we are well in and around of so we’re excited for the end of the season.”
Sunday will also provide a first chance for former City defender Lucy Bronze to play against her old club after leaving for Lyon last summer in a deal which saw German forward Pauline Bremer move the other way.
Bronze sat out the friendly defeat last August but Jill Scott isn’t getting caught up in coming up against a friend and current international teammate.
“They’ve got so many great players and we know Lucy is a great player but it won’t be a matter of being an ex-teammate, it will be us against them.”
It was Cushing who had the last word, simply summing up how his players should be feeling going into a game where few expect them to come out victorious.
“We’ve played them three times and beat them twice, if that doesn’t give the players confidence I don’t know what will.”