It’s a weekend which puts the British women’s game on a new level – the first time one of our teams has reached the semi-final of the Champions League since Arsenal Ladies won it in its previous guise in 2007 – and the contrasts are what make the tie between Manchester City and Lyon on Saturday afternoon so fascinating.
On paper, player for player, you have to say that Lyon are the stronger side because they have recruited in a way which makes them something like the Harlem Globetrotters of the women’s sport. They look to buy the best player of other nations, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Japan’s Saku Kumagai, Sweden’s Caroline Seger and Kadeisha Buchanan from Canada. And that was before they brought in Alex Morgan from the United States, of course.
City have money to spend, too, but they’ve been savvy, tending to recruit good quality players from the less well-resourced British sides and fit them into a squad who work extremely hard for each other. No English side is less about individualists than City and even Carli Lloyd, the world’s best player, has seemed to fit with that philosophy since she arrived in February. In some ways this reflects manager Nick Cushing, who is not one who likes to take the spotlight.
Saturday’s game – a 2pm kick off at City’s Academy Stadium - is being billed as the Morgan v Lloyd show, though for me it is Lloyd who has the qualities which can turn a game. Morgan has supreme athleticism and finishing power but Lloyd is the one of the pair who looks like she was born to play the game. She, too, scores goals, but she is technically excellent, can break up play, stands strong in periods of the game when the team is under pressure and has an intuitive feel for space which, for me, just about puts her above Morgan.
There’s an undoubted glamour about both players and I say that’s a great thing. The US has led the way for us; getting fans into games, where they discover that the women’s sport has made huge strides in quality. The quality of the players/teams will be the aspect that keeps fans coming back.
City have also made a point of ensuring that their players are accessible, which should add to the draw for supporters this weekend. The players stay around afterwards and those visiting on Saturday have a genuine opportunity to meet the world’s best women’s football player, Lloyd.
They’ll also discover that the women’s team have a similar style of playing to the men. It’s part of the club’s philosophy that the women and youth teams adopt a similar passing game that Pep Guardiola wants and City women are very much a key component of Manchester City FC. Lyon have a strong reputation in this competition – they won it in 2011, 2012 and 2016 but City know that they face a tougher competitive threat than the French in domestic football, week-to-week. They’ve won the French domestic title for the past ten years, regularly scoring 10+ goals, and that lack of competitive threat isn’t a good thing when you are up against strong continental opposition.
Though the focus will be on the Americans, a player to look out for is City’s Keira Walsh. She’s only 20 and that’s why her capacity to understand the game positionally is so surprisingly good. Walsh operates as the defensive shield at the base of the midfield and that role is key, given the fact that the way City play allows the full backs Lucy Bronze and Demi Stokes to bomb forward. When City lose possession, Walsh is the key component to help the team recover. She gets back, delays play, makes tackles and interceptions, slotting in as the third defender with the full backs absent, and generally establishes equilibrium back there. Expect Walsh to be in the middle with Lloyd and Jill Scott on Saturday.
It’s a massive week for City, with the men’s FA Cup semi-final on Sunday and the Manchester derby the following Thursday, which the women will have to miss as they fly to Lyons that day ahead of next weekend’s second leg. But Saturday’s Champions League semi-final is the game which could potentially see the club make history.
Lucy Ward is a former Leeds Ladies and England under-21 player and now a BBC co-commentator and match analyst