For the second consecutive week, Uefa Champions League football comes to the Etihad. This time the opponents will be Brondby, not Barcelona. The ground will be the Academy Stadium, rather than the Etihad Stadium itself. The global audience will not be quite as big.
Yet the aim is the same: to win, to progress and to take a step nearer to making Manchester City champions of Europe. Their women's team are taking a step into the unknown, just as their men's side did five years ago. They feel they are underdogs, just as Pep Guardiola's charges seemed to be before they beat Barcelona 3-1 last Tuesday.
“We have to be realistic,” cautioned manager Nick Cushing. “We’re only two games into our Champions League history.” City advanced straight into the knockout stages, where they beat the Russian club Zvezda Perm 6-0 on aggregate.
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Now they are England’s sole representatives in the last 16, hosting Brondby on Wednesday evening before travelling to Denmark for next week’s second leg. “They fall into the bracket of being one of the most experienced teams,” added Cushing.
“Zvezda were tough but we’ve played better teams in our league this season. We’ve seen Brondby. We don’t know what their strategy will be – they may come to win the game or come to hold out for a draw. Trying to second guess the opposition is difficult. We will always try to win.”
That confidence is understandable. City completed the summer league season unbeaten, dropping only six points as they secured their Super League title for the first time, and lifted the Continental Tyres Cup to render them double winners.
It is one sign of their prowess that Jane Ross, their top scorer in the league season, scored twice as many goals as they conceded – a mere four – in the entire campaign. Cushing’s well-drilled defence keep clean sheets aplenty, but an attacking brand of football helps draw the crowds in.
And City are not merely building a team; they are building a fan base. The men’s team captain Vincent Kompany is a high-profile supporter of Cushing’s side. Significantly, they have become the first women’s team in the English game to average crowds of over 2,000.
“We’ve had a consistent following this season: a group of fans who have come home and away and supported us,” Cushing said. “We rely on that support and I know they’ll be here.
“If we can play the style of football I know we can play, and we get big games, like the Continental Cup final, people will keep coming. It’s up to us to play a style of football that people want to see. Our target is to keep growing it. We want to play in front of a full stadium.”
City have recruited well in recent years but, much like Guardiola, Cushing concentrates on what the collective can achieve. “We have to get each individual playing their best,” he said. “They know their levels have to be up there when they play the best.”
That is the objective of Izzy Christiansen, the PFA Women’s Player of the Year last season. She scored City’s last goal against Zvezda and said: “The progression of the women’s game is reflected in the way the Champions League is now. It’s highly competitive, there are 16 teams of the highest quality and the game will be a huge challenge for us. We’ll see how far we’ve come.”
And how far they can go. While City have already booked their place in next year’s competition, the final will be played at Cardiff in June, two days before the men’s competition also concludes in the Welsh capital. City’s ideal would be for both sides to head there in search of glory.
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