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No pre-season, out of the Champions League: Real Madrid loss sums up Manchester City's nightmare start

09:00 BST 09/09/2021
Real Madrid Manchester City Women 2021
Fourteen City players represented their countries at the Olympics Games in Tokyo this summer and it's had a massive effect on the team already

Manchester City’s start to the new season has been so difficult, it’s unprecedented.

Having 14 players representing their countries at the Olympic Games in the summer might be a sign of just how talented the squad is, but it also created a huge problem in pre-season.

With not a single fixture played, and seven new players to integrate, that lack of ideal preparation ultimately led to Wednesday’s premature UEFA Women’s Champions League exit, at the hands of a very good Real Madrid side who gave further evidence that people should not be overlooking the Spanish league. 

“We didn’t do any games in pre-season and that was the situation we were in,” City head coach Gareth Taylor said after his team’s home defeat to the Spaniards, a 1-0 result going against the Women’s Super League side, who drew 1-1 in Madrid.

“At the end of the day, our pre-season preparation wasn’t great and the Olympics probably hurt us more than most teams in terms of the return to training for most of the girls, but football is football.

“If you don't defend in the right manner, and you don't take your chances at the other end of the pitch, you're always leaving yourself vulnerable like that.

“I think it's a consideration, but this is the game, this is football and we need to be better than that. We’re really disappointed because we wanted to do better in this competition.”

This was just City’s third game, full stop, since last season ended. They looked disjointed at times, like a team lacking that match sharpness, which was especially evident in the final third.

"Off the pace"; "timid in our challenges"; "quite a lot of second balls we didn't win or get to" – these were all quotes from Taylor's post-match press conference.

Throw in that the team were missing some big players through injury, particularly Lucy Bronze, perhaps the best right-back in the world, and Keira Walsh, their incredibly important deep-lying midfielder, and it’s been incredibly difficult.

There was probably not a trickier draw they could have got for this Champions League tie, either.

City’s issues should not take away from Real Madrid, who were the better team over two legs. This was a team missing a couple of key players themselves, with lots of new signings that needed to gel. But David Aznar’s tactics were spot on, even when it looked like this tie would not fall their way.

In the first leg, they created chance after chance, even getting a penalty, but wouldn’t score until Kenti Robles’ brilliant stoppage time equaliser.

In Manchester, they had a perfectly good goal ruled out for by a shocking offside decision, too. But a fortuitous deflection from Claudia Zornoza’s match-winning strike saw their luck level out.

Before the game, Real’s Athenea del Castillo described qualification to the group stages as something the team had all “wanted since we were children”.

If this was a dream come true for the Spanish side, in just their second ever season as Real Madrid, then it was a nightmare turned reality for their opponents, who were quarter-finalists last season.

While the Spaniards eagerly await the results of Thursday’s European ties, and then spend the build-up to Monday’s draw looking at who they could face in the groups, City will have to pick themselves up and focus on whatever positives they can.

One of those will be that things will only be up from here, with players returning from injuries, new signings to come in and there being a game in just a few days’ time, at home to Tottenham on Sunday, for them to switch their focus to.

The long-term focus will be very much on those WSL games, too. City have not won the league title since 2016. After starting the campaign with a 4-0 win over UWCL hopefuls Everton, they now have a slight advantage, with Chelsea and likely Arsenal, 3-0 up from their first leg against Slavia Prague, to be in Europe.

“We need to look at it that way. That's the only way we can look at it,” Taylor said. "Because that's obviously the big disappointment, because we wanted to be in this competition. 

“But we were put into a tough qualification process where we drew out the only other seeded team. Now, we face not being in Europe, so we have to focus on the domestic competitions.”

It’s been far from ideal for City so far, and we are only three games into the new season.

It’s down to them, though, whether they dwell on that disappointment or use it to fire them up for the remainder of the campaign.