WSL1 Preview: Can Cushing’s Citizens claim the title?

With the new WSL season upon us, Neil Evans evaluates the strength’s and weakness of Manchester City Women, whose star-studded squad he believes will come up just short in their bid for the title.

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Team: Manchester City Women
Manager: Nick Cushing
Home: The Academy Stadium, Manchester
2015: 2nd WSL1

It’s been a story of progression in the short history of Manchester City Women (in their present form).

The 2014 season was all about making a statement, and their arrival certainly achieved that; although some would argue it was more style than substance, and a poor league campaign was rescued with their Continental Cup win.

Last season was about challenging for the title and, most importantly, qualifying for the UEFA Women’s Champions League. A strong season ensued, with Nick Cushing’s City pushing Chelsea hard for first place.

They were, however, always just that one step behind the west Londoners, but finished three points clear of third-placed Arsenal. So far, so good – given all the investment that has gone into building such a star-studded squad – and the club can be satisfied with what they have achieved.

The expectations for this season are just that little bit greater. A very talented group has been further bolstered to fight on all four fronts and, like Chelsea, they will need that strength to push for the WSL crown and a good run in the UWCL. Add international commitments and the weight of expectation from supporters and owners alike and it’s fair to say that City face an arduous next 24 months.

The squad is as good as any assembled in the women’s game. Karen Bardsley’s quality speaks for itself and she is backed up by two quality keepers in the experienced Marie Hourihan (signed from Chelsea) and youth product Alex Brooks (who is out on loan at Everton).

In-front of Bardsley sits captain Steph Houghton – a quality defender with an eye for goal. Beware any side giving away set-pieces within 25-yards, as Houghton has proved time after time that she has a rocket of a shot. Lucy Bronze is as reliable as a Swiss watch and is another rock at the back for City. With so much experience, it is worth remembering that Bronze is just 23 and has many years at the top still to come for club and country. Long throw specialist and Irish international Megan Campbell has joined after studying in the US and joins the hugely underrated Abbie McManus, who is very much an unsung (and local) hero. Demi Stokes adds electric pace at full back and is another product of the north-east who has found her footballing home in the north-west.

The loss of Izzy Christiansen is a massive blow – she picked up an injury last weekend as City progressed into the Women’s FA Cup quarters. She was going to be my chosen key player for City as last season was her breakthrough year and she was deservedly recognised by Mark Sampson for England’s Euro campaign. Hopefully her absence will be short.

Of course, City still have Jill Scott to bulldoze her way through opposing defences and to put in the hard yards to central midfield. Jill is a ‘physical freak’ in the nicest way. Her height, power and limitless energy can dominate the centre of the park like few others in the game. She is quite literally at the centre of what City do.

Elsewhere in midfield, Jennifer Beattie is another quality player who has a knack of scoring crucial goals and brings the big-game experience essential to City’s lofty ambitions. Daphne Corboz enjoyed a more than decent first season in City colours and she will undoubtedly add flair in a more attacking midfield role. Rochdale lass, Keira Walsh completes a balanced and formidable midfield.

When you look at City, it’s impossible not to be excited by the wealth of riches in attack.

Toni Duggan enjoyed a fine season for club and country in 2015 and appeared to score ‘worldy’ after ‘worldy’ – at times seeming intent on setting up her own goal-of-the-season competition. But forget the goals, this girl puts a shift in every game and is no show pony. Jane Ross has followed her Scottish team-mate Beattie in making the move to Manchester from Swedish side Vittsjo GIK. Another player with Champions League experience, it is clear to see that the club have recruited beyond the horizons of the WSL.

Also in the striker ranks, Nikita Paris’ 2015 season loan from Everton has been made permanent, which is no surprise as she provided real pace coupled with a poacher’s instinct for goals, and Kosovare Asllani is an exciting signing, snapped up from PSG. The Swedish international has over 80 caps for her country. Georgia Stanway, fresh from scoring a screamer in the cup against Liverpool, will get her share of game time. Undoubtedly the forwards will score plenty and the club have assembled a wonderful balance between potential and proven ability.

All that City need to do now is perform. Money talks and, right now, City have the loudest voice in the female game. But that brings its own pressure. There is so little to choose between the ‘big three’ that I have to go with my gut feelings, and I think that City may take a little time to work out who best fits where. And I am concerned about Christansen’s injury, because she has become so integral to how the team plays.

They start with two tough, but winnable, home games and these early contests may have a massive bearing on their title chances.

I think it will be another season yet before City claim what seems to be their inevitable WSL1 title. But I still expect them to do very well in the UWCL and that momentum will be ideal to carry into the following season.

First Game: v Notts County Ladies (H) – March 23rd

Key Player: Jill Scott

Prediction: 3rd

Read more form Neil here
Follow Neil at @swinfan69

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