Their legs are weary, but the advantage is with the players of Chelsea Ladies and Manchester City Women as they seek to make history tomorrow night. Both clubs defend 2-0 quarter-final, first-leg leads as they attempt to provide England’s best-ever representation in the last four of the Women's Champions League.
In the 18 seasons of the competition (originally called the Uefa Women’s Cup) England have provided eight semi-finalists, but never two together. Manchester City, who go to Swedish champions Linköping, reached the last four last season. Chelsea, who host French club Montpellier, are already in uncharted territory.
Both teams will be grateful for their first leg leads as the thicket of matches is beginning to catch up with them. With the exception of last year’s Champions League final City have played every match possible in the last two seasons and with international commitments on top it is taking a toll of their small squad. Having not lost a domestic match for more than a year they were falling to their third defeat in four matches (with the other drawn) on Sunday when Jane Ross equalised in the last minute of their Women’s FA Cup quarter-final at Sunderland. The Scot scored again as City won 4-2 in extra-time but the added 30 minutes was the last thing Manchester City manager Nick Cushing wanted.
Chelsea have a larger squad, but rotation can cause problems too and they were 2-0 down to Reading in the Women’s Super League on Sunday before snatching a 2-2 draw. That result, and City’s slips, mean Arsenal, who host Chelsea on Sunday, are back in the title race.
Subsequently manager Emma Hayes called for the Football Association to “do more to help teams in the Champions League”. She added: “The players are athletes, but they are human. When we have a game every three or four days it puts a lot of pressure and stress on them to be always be at their best. Yes, there is a squad but in normal circumstances I would play my strongest XI. I can’t do that as some players don’t recover [in time].”
Cushing concurred. “We are trying to have the best league in the world and get our national team from third to first and I don’t think we are giving ourselves the best chance to achieve that,” he said. “We need to look at how we look after clubs and players.”
It is an argument familiar from the men’s game, but not easy to resolve as clubs with fewer resources, who do not have extended cup runs, are not always sympathetic.
Besides fatigue City must counter former player Kosovare Asllani and England striker Natasha Dowie. With the draw already made if City progress they could face a repeat of last season’s semi-final against a Lyon side seeking a third successive title. Lyon, who include former City defender Lucy Bronze, take a 2-1 lead to a Barcelona side featuring ex-City striker Toni Duggan.
Should Chelsea go through they expect to face Wolfsburg who knocked them out of this competition the last two seasons. That would make for an unusual reunion. The Germans, who hold a 5-1 first-leg against Slavia Prague, are spearheaded by Danish striker Pernille Harder. Her partner, Magdalena Eriksson, joined Chelsea this season.
Prior to Manchester City last year only two English clubs had reached the last four, Birmingham City in 2014 and Arsenal six times from 2003-2013. Only Arsenal, in 2007, reached the final. They went on to win the trophy, Alex Scott scoring the only goal over two legs against Sweden’s Umea.
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