UWCL SEMI-FINAL PREVIEW: City's Lionesses Have Total Focus
Three of Manchester City's Lionesses explain their excitement of the challenge of the Champions League & facing holders Lyon...
The England Lionesses squad for the European Championships was announced in early April, and it contained no fewer than eight Manchester City players. It marked another staging post in a series of massive months in their footballing lives writes PAUL NICHOLSON (& Jen O'Neill).
With the Euros on the horizon, City have achieved their first main aim in securing an FA Cup final place against Birmingham at Wembley in May, also imminent is the kick off of the WSL Spring Series kicks and they have an unbeaten league record that extended throughout 2016 to maintain - but before all of that they face a huge two-legged UEFA Champions League semi-final against French giants Lyon.
The first leg takes place at Manchester City’s Academy Stadium tomorrow (on Saturday, 2pm ko), and three of City and England’s most influential and reliable defenders took time out at the Lionesses squad announcement to talk with She Kicks about the task ahead.
City and England skipper, Steph Houghton, understands what a big year this is for her and her teammates, but insists that not looking past the next game is vital for success.
“I think you’ve just got to try and focus on one game at a time, and I think the City girls are quite good at switching their focus from club to country, and we have to be totally 100% focused on club when it comes to the likes of an FA Cup [final] and the Champions League.
“You want to be playing in these games, that’s what you play football for. We’ve got a great opportunity to potentially reach two finals and if you’d said that at the beginning of the season, I would have snapped someone’s hand off, so it’s a great position to be in.”
It is a run of big games in quick succession, but this is nothing new to the former Sunderland and Arsenal defender.
“It reminds me a little bit of last season where we had a period of the Continental Cup semi-final, then we had the win against Chelsea to win the league and then we had the Continental Cup final.
“It was all within 10 to 12 days, but I think you can have [a spell with] no games, and then they all come at once, and I think that’s been our season so far.
“I think we’ve just played four [games] in 11 days – which is tough – but at the same time, it always helps when you win.”
The 85-times-capped England star also thinks that the experience she and her international teammates have at major tournaments helps with the limited number of recovery days between games.
“I think we’ve really worked hard at trying to make everybody as robust as they possibly can, to be able to last that many games, and I think you can rely on the likes of me, Demi [Stokes] and Lucy [Bronze] – that are playing every game for every minute – to be able to pull out performances and be consistent.”
City left-back, and fellow north-easterner, Demi Stokes is excited at the challenge that awaits them against the French side.
She said: “Lyon are the Champs, so to be playing the best… what an opportunity!”
Stokes believes that being mentally ready for the challenge of big games is as important as being physically prepared, and this is an area that Manchester City place great emphasis on, and is something that they identify in players they are keen to bring to the club.
“People think it is just a physical game, but if you aren’t tuned up in your mind you can fall behind. If you don’t understand why you are doing things or what’s required and you’re not diligent in everything you do, then you will get found out.
“That’s the type of people that City recruit, they want good people and they want good athletes, so they look for a particular type of player. So, being around everyone trying to be the best, it becomes habit and second nature.”
Another member of City’s north-eastern contingent, Lucy Bronze, is similarly excited at the prospect of facing the defending champions of Europe’s premier competition.
Looking back at the games she’s already played in 2017, and ahead to those coming up – starting with Lyon – she said: “I’m really excited. I think that it could potentially be the toughest game we’ll play all year.
“Obviously the Euros are big, and France and Germany are brilliant, but Lyon are hand-picked, world class players in all positions.
“But then at City, we’ve got [world class] players here. We’ve got a Ballon D’Or winner and we’ve got all sorts of internationals who are the stars of their team as well.”
Yet the English Champions League newcomers will go into the tie as underdogs – a situation that City do not often find themselves in.
But Bronze relishes the tag, and thinks that not being seen as favourites will help the reigning WSL champions.
“I think it puts the pressure on them. I mean, the pressure IS on them. We’ve never been in the Champions League, so it’s just kind of ‘let’s just see where we’re at’.
“I thrive on big games, especially underdog games. I mean look at the She Believes [Cup], they’re the kind of games I love. We were the underdogs in those games as well.
“I think at City and at England we probably struggle more playing teams who are below us because it’s different, it has a different feel to it.”
Bronze also thinks that they have an ace up their sleeve in USA superstar Carli Lloyd, who she says has adapted to living and playing in England superbly.
“[Carli] loves living in England. She loves it at City.
“She’s a really nice girl. She keeps herself to herself. She’s nice and quiet. She gets the English banter, whereas I feel like sometimes it’s [assumed that] Americans might struggle, but she gets it and she likes it.”
She is also a top player, who thrives in the big games and in the big moments, and Manchester City will be hoping that - as she comes up against another USA talisman for success in Alex Morgan - Lloyd can step up once more and inspire the rest of the team to victory in the biggest game that the club have played in their reltatively short, professional, history.
Neither are workable or likely at present but hypothetically, would you prefer a more strict salary cap in the FA WSL OR should centrally contracted England players (that receive salaries from The FA) be allocated more evenly around WSL1 clubs?