Champions of France? Champions of Spain? Manchester City have found their ceiling in Europe.
Living a charmed life in their first season in European competition, an unseeded team (as WSL runner-ups to Chelsea), City managed to avoid a full-time team until the semi-finals. Olympique Lyonnais – the holders at the time and team that would go on to lift the trophy in Cardiff five weeks later – their downfall, the same team would come back to haunt them at the same stage the following season. Again the Citizens had a kind enough draw, Austrians St. Pölten, Norwegians LSK and a gutted Linköping team their fodder on the way to meet Lyon; the results different, the outcome the same.
Having lost Lucy Bronze to the French champions, it was only poetic that the only goal scored over the two legs would be sent spinning into the net by the defender. An aggregated score of 1-0 to Lyon one of the best in Man City’s history and the faintest whisper of their place with Europe’s best, yet it’s all been downhill [in the Champions League] since.
Getting their first taste of Spanish opposition, City finally got unlucky, albeit as the seeded team, as they drew Atlético Madrid in the round of 32 last season. The Spanish champions had proved themselves as a worthy foe in their home league but in their two previous outings in Europe they had been knocked out by Lyon in the round of 16 and, the previous season, VfL Wolfsburg in the first round. City were the favourites; they may not have been league champions like their opposition but boasted a better pedigree in the Champions League.
A first leg in Majadahonda had seen the visitors keep a hold of their advantage, their away goal enough to overrule Kenti Robles’ last-minute equaliser. But when it came to the return leg in Manchester, City’s defence was left without answers to Ludmila’s blistering and ripping runs into the home penalty box. City, without a response, exited the competition at the earliest instance, falling at the first hurdle – Atleti’s incredible 10-0 aggregated dismantling by Wolfsburg in the next round only raising more questions.
Marginal gains this season
Seeing FF Lugano off in the first round with the scantiest of wobbles, the clash with Atleti in the second round gave City a chance to redeem themselves. Despite having lost a handful of players over the summer, the team from Manchester had brought in fair reinforcements and came into the clash in a far more stable fashion than their opposition. A first half goal meaning little when the visitors struck late after a period of sustained pressure, Ludmila back to terrorise the hosts at the CFA.
Needing to score in Madrid, little changed for the WSL runners-up when the ball bounced off of Steph Houghton’s arm and into the goal as Toni Duggan lurked behind, waiting for the chance to give Atleti the lead. As the game wore on, City got further and further from troubling Sari van Veenendaal, for the fourth match on the spin they looked increasingly toothless in front of goal.
Angela Sosa’s point-blank finish gave City little chance of coming back into the game, this time it was Charlyn Corral who had taunted and exposed the defence that had been getting more and more fragile with each passing game. Pauline Bremer’s goal came too late to change the outcome, for a second season, City had been dumped out of the Champions League by Atleti. For a second season, City were out before Christmas.
With mounting defensive issues that go further than the loss of Lucy Bronze in 2017 and long-term injury to Aoife Mannion. As well as an attack that, as it stands, isn’t doing its job, it’s hard to see where Man City go from here. There are still three pieces of domestic silverware to be won – two of which the Citizens currently hold – but from a Champions League standpoint, City look a long, long way from being able to compete with Europe’s best.
Should they finish in the top two in WSL this season, it’s hard to see a 2020-21 Champions League campaign that brings European success to the blue half of Manchester.
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