Although it was their first foray into the competition it was very much business as usual for the hosts. The crowd intoning “Beats!” every time Jennifer Beattie touched the ball, the XI on the pitch may have well be having a kick around against Liverpool instead of the Russian Champions.
The hosts started on the offensive, bringing Toni Duggan and Izzy Christiansen into the game immediately, the former found acres of space on the left but her teammates weren’t be allowed so much free roam. City were on the offensive and Zvezda were very much on the defensive, playing the away team role from the get-go; sitting back and restricting the movement of the forward line. But sure enough the visitors began to grow into the game, stringing passes together to slowly but surely test out the backline and City still laboured against the Red Wall.
Even without banks of red shirts in front of them, City were careless in the final third, taking too many touches, pondering on the ball instead of playing it, giving the visitors plenty of time to close them down. Unfortunately the passes were below average too, consistently over or under-hit, as City struggled to flow as they can.
The crowd consistently asked the hosts to shoot from distance, possibly frustrated by seeing their team so blunted, Jane Ross obliged on the quarter hour, her 20 yarder had Iryna Zvarych scrambling but slipped wide of the post.
In her first real action of the game Lucy Bronze marauded down the right and with team mates making themselves available she continued on alone, cutting in at the dead-ball line to test Zvarych at her near post. The 'keeper covered the angle but was forced to concede a corner which was subsequently cleared with ease.
As the half hour approached the Citizens started to attack more cohesively, using the wings, Jill Scott and Kosovare Asllani lined up to send a driven cross to the near post, Zvarych was out to claim and kill a silkier move from the unsettled hosts. But City came again as Duggan released Ross on the left this time, but the move lost pace as the Sky Blues began to play backwards once again taking too long on the ball and allowing the visitors to get back.
The hosts began to up the tempo and a hopeful move culminated in Jill Scott lashing the ball into the net from five yards; Bronze came up with the assist, in a move straight from Sunderland – or Everton. The goal got the crowd off their seats and the Citizens looked to have finally found their rhythm and cracked the woodwork twice in quick succession, first Asllani fired across the goal with the net begging she could only canon the far post before Steph Houghton’s towering header slammed against the crossbar. City back to being City once more.
To their credit, Zvezda were quick to recover and recompose, standing tall in defence, banked up once more.
Keen to put a sloppy first-half out of their minds City hit the ground running after the restart, doing their best to catch the firm defence out, Duggan’s driven effort from outside the box, fired directly into Zvarych’s midriff. Looking for her second of the game, Scott caught the ball well to launch it towards the top corner but Zvarych was alert to the danger and parried for yet another corner.
City continued to threaten whether Scott’s hopeful volley or Asllani’s stretched effort, with plenty of options on an off the ball if felt like just a matter of time before the hosts doubled their advantage. The hosts continued to spark but still couldn’t catch light, a slick one-two between Bronze and Asllani saw the hosts bring the ball through the crowded box before the keeper sprinted off of her line to put behind for a corner.
As the clock ticked into the 80th minute and more and more blue shirts flooded the away half, the crowd were once more off their seats ready to cheer Jill Scott’s name again as the rangy midfielder got forward well and let fly with a sublime effort from a tight angle. With Zvarych flying through the air, unable to get even a fingertip on the ball, it looked like it was double-trouble for Scott but the CFA was left stunned as the ball cannoned against the far post before bouncing just the wrong side of the line.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the hosts in the last minutes though as Karen Bardsley brought down Ekaterina Pantyukhina outside the box, gifting the visitors a late free kick. Bardsley parried the ball back into the area and the home fans held their breath as it bounced back and forth, the hosts were unable to fully clear before Pantyukhina volleyed high over the bar.
With just seconds left it looked like City would only be carrying a one goal advantage with them to Russia, but with a last minute corner the hosts finally doubled their advantage. The ball was worked out to Bronze outside the box, and was urged once more to shoot by the fans. The defender slammed the ball low into the mix, like a thread of cotton through the eye of the needle, the ball found the bottom corner.
If the Chelsea versus Wolfsburg game was a marker for the Chelsea’s poor season so too was City’s game; the same problems that have haunted them all season were on display for all to see, especially the lack of bite in the final third.
For City the job isn’t even half done. Zvezda are particularly dangerous at home and it’s within their capabilities to score three unanswered goals against jet-lagged opponents.