Manchester City recorded a respectable and hard-fought 0-0 draw with reigning European champions Lyon on Sunday to leave their Champions League semifinal tie in the balance going to France next week.
It was a big improvement for the hosts from their 3-1 defeat at the same stage last season — Carli Lloyd’s goal in a 1-0 win in Lyon wasn’t enough to send Nick Cushing’s side to the Champions League final on their first attempt.
With Chelsea on the end of the same result as City found themselves down by 12 months ago after the first semifinal leg against Wolfsburg, it may be down to the current FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) champions to become the first English team to reach a European final since Arsenal in 2007.
For City it was a case of executing a well preplanned game plan, which they did in some respects, but only in one half of the field. Coming into the game off the back of some poor defensive displays, a unit familiar with each other put in their best defensive performance of the season to stop Lyon gaining a crucial away goal, something both Cushing and captain Steph Houghton were pleased with.
“We wanted to get a positive result and not concede an away goal,” said Cushing post-match. “To get a 0-0 draw is definitely a positive result, especially against a team like Lyon. We know the quality they have and the success they’ve had, it means it’s a one-off semifinal now next week.”
Houghton added, “We knew that with the players they have in their squad they have a lot of players who can score so as a back four it’s pleasing but the whole team worked as hard as they could.
“Next week is what’s in our heads now, we went there last year and we beat them so we want to get that important away goal but we want to keep a clean sheet again, too.”
There was a more familiar look with Houghton passed fit, Abbie McManus returning, and a first appearance in more than two months for England’s Karen Bardsley after Ellie Roebuck picking up an injury against Sunderland on Wednesday.
For the most part, Bardsley only had to deal with an array of crosses from the French champions but pulled off an excellent save on Amandine Henry late to keep City well in the tie.
“We spoke a lot in the preparation that we expected to be put under pressure,” said Cushing. “I’d said in the press conference before the game: to get a good result against Lyon, our two central defenders and goalkeeper have to play exceptional games. That happened when we played in Lyon last year and it happened again.
“Steph Houghton, Jen Beattie, and Karen Bardsley, in particular, but amongst others, when under pressure, defended very, very well.”
Where City often got themselves into trouble was with their passing, both in defense and in attack. Cushing constantly demands his team play out from the back and it’s one of the big reasons Roebuck has been preferred to Bardsley. Cushing rates the 18-year-old’s confidence with the ball at her feet highly and the team are encouraged to play through Roebuck.
On Bardsley’s performance, Cushing said, “Impressed me but didn’t surprise me. I know the level KB can play at. This year, she’s been disappointed with injuries she’s picked up and she’s not been able to get much momentum.
“I get that people outside our dressing room will perceive that we play Ellie Roebuck over Karen because KB is number two and Ellie is number one but it’s a competitive position. KB has proved she can go in and play well and Ellie has had really good performances. That shirt is there to be won and I thought KB took her opportunity and played very, very well.”
While City often were their own worst enemies at the back at times with some under-hit or over-hit passes into the midfield, Lyon’s usually clinical attack couldn’t take advantage.
“Some periods were better,” said Lyon’s Norwegian forward Ada Hegerberg. “We can quite clearly see what we need to work on for the next game. That’s getting the ball a bit higher up the pitch, owning the ball more, and dominating a bit higher to get those crosses in. All in all, some things to work on.”
In attack it was a similar story for City. Cushing threw a curveball into the match by placing midfielder Izzy Christiansen as a false nine with the objective of her hold-up play allowing City to bring their wingers, Nikita Parris and Mel Lawley, into play.
It worked on occasion but all too often City panicked and didn’t have that composure so well associated with their opponents in the big moments over the years. Jill Scott, in particular, was guilty of wasting several opportunities but both Parris and Lawley did their jobs well.
“Izzy is a very intelligent player — she had a good understanding of the game. I don’t think it’s really down to me. It’s down to the players and how we apply our principles. Maybe sometimes, we have to adapt to respect the quality of the opposition.”
Cushing added, “We want to dominate the ball but every team is different. Maybe against Chelsea and maybe against Lyon, you have to find a way. That’s my job — tactically, to find a way — but it’s more reliant on the players’ intelligence and their ability to understand what we want and how we want the game to be played and out concepts.
Parris started on the left and went up against former teammate Lucy Bronze in what turned into a feisty battle when the former City defender was booked for a rough challenge on the former Everton winger.
Lawley, on the other hand, was superb and City’s best outlet in attack against teenager Selma Bacha. Lawley constantly caused her issues either going down the wing or cutting inside with a bit of skill or trickery but City didn’t have an outlet in the middle to cross to with Jane Ross and Nadia Nadim both on the bench.
Lyon’s high press intended to put City under pressure but for the most part, Cushing’s side dealt with it well and looked comfortable trying to play around the Lyon players and get the ball forward without launching the ball over the top.
A tactical shift at halftime meant Lyon could get the influential Dzsenifer Marozsán further up the field with the former Liverpool winger Shanice van de Sanden sacrificed at halftime. Kheira Hamraoui’s introduction offered the visitors more balance but still they couldn’t get Eugénie Le Sommer or Ada Hegerberg into the positions they would have liked.
“Everything still hangs in the balance ahead of the second leg,” said Lyon manager Reynald Pedros. “Maybe we deserved to edge it but it’s high suspense for the game next weekend.
“The objective now is win this tie. We knew it would be intense and we knew City have a very strong, powerful midfield. We know it won’t be an easy encounter at home but we played a lot of the time in City’s half and it was just not managing to find that final ball.”
While Lyon’s mentality was that of a team that has won the last two tournaments and is sniffing a third consecutive triumph, perhaps the biggest factor in the game was indeed the shift in mentality of the home side.
In Friday’s press conference midfielder Scott admitted City were guilty of showing their opponents too much “respect” last season and found themselves conceding two goals in the opening 20 minutes after approaching the game with a very standoff-ish system.
This year, City went at Lyon from the off, pressing them high and trying to make them uncomfortable and getting stuck in. Even tenacious teenager Georgia Stanway wasn’t afraid to stick her boot in on her more esteemed opponents as City this time around didn’t just look like a team who belonged there, they looked like a team who believed they belonged there.
It was a sentiment Houghton agreed with after the game. “We learned a lot about our experiences in the Champions League last year; we’ve worked in training this week and I’m very proud of all the team.
“These are the games you want to play and we learned a lot about ourselves in preseason when we beat them 3-2 after one week’s training. When you get this experience against these teams it’s important you get a hold of the game and give everything, which we did for the whole game.
City now have the rarity of a free week to prepare for the second leg next Sunday with no league matches this midweek and Cushing says he “trusts” his medical staff to have the players in the best state possible for next week.
“I’ve said before: I can’t change the schedule,” he said. “I can complain about it but it’s not going to get me anywhere. I have to find solutions to the schedule because we want to be competitive in every competition. We won’t give up a competition. We want to win as many competitions as we can.
“We as staff — myself, the sports scientists, the physios and the coaches — we have to find a solution. I fully trust the medical staff and performance team. This week, we played a similar team, only making three changes and the players looked fresh. We have to do that again. We have to turn them around. We’ve got a lot of games left and no rest. We’ll take the five or six days of rest we have now before the Lyon game and we’ll use it productively as we can.”