Manchester City Women face their toughest test to date next month – but Steph Houghton believes the team are in good shape after well-executed pre-season.
Wins over wins over Zvezda Perm and Brondby IF have seen the Blues safely through to the quarter-finals of their debut Champions League campaign and Nick Cushing’s side will now travel to Denmark for the first leg of their last-eight tie with Fortuna Hjorring in three weeks’ time.
Hjorring, who reached the final of the competition in 2003, represent a stern test, something Steph Houghton, a nominee for FIFPro's Women's World XI, is acutely aware of – but she believes the team’s preparations mean they will be ready when the first leg rolls around.
“It’s been a tough pre-season - probably one of the toughest that we’ve had,” she says. “We’ve played against some top European teams, which is only going to do us good in the long run, especially when we come up against opposition that are very strong and physical like ourselves.
“Everybody in the camp is feeling good and confident. We needed a good pre-season under our belt so we can go and kick on when the season starts.
“We want to be the best we can be in Europe and we’ve given a really good account of ourselves so far in the competition.
“It starts all over again against Fortuna in the quarter-finals and we’re aware they’re very experienced.
“We have to make sure we stick together, play the way we know and remember our philosophy. Hopefully, we’ll put on a good performance both away and at home.”
Man City enjoyed a fine 2016, winning their first ever WSL title and regaining the Continental Cup they first won back in 2014.
Cushing’s side are now seen as England’s strongest outfit, with the recent signing of two-time FIFA Women's World Cup Player of the Year Carli Lloyd increasing expectations still further.
Houghton, though, has warned against complacency and believes only by improving can they expect to be successful on the European stage.
“For us, it’s all about not being complacent,” she says. “We had a fantastic season last year but we know we can always improve.
“Against the best European teams, you can’t make mistakes because they will hurt you. That was evident against Potsdam and Frankfurt.
“We didn’t do too much wrong but they were clinical and that’s what we should strive for.
“We need to be defensively well-organised to prevent the opposition from scoring but we also need to be clinical up top.
“That’s something we’re trying to improve on as much we can.”
Crowds at the Academy Stadium have been steadily growing since City Women began back in 2013, something Houghton believes is key to their continued success and she desperately wants to see a big crowd for the second leg in Manchester on March 30.
“I’ve said it from the first day: the fans are unbelievable,” she says. “They come out in their numbers.
“There was a lot of people at the friendly against Frankfurt, although it was a freezing cold Friday night!
“Champions League games are the games the fans should want to come and watch. It’s going to be a tough test and we need their support more than ever.
“Hopefully, we’ll hear a lot of their voices!”
Fortuna Hjorring v ManCity
Rosengard v Barcelona
Wolfsburg v Lyon
Bayern Munich v Paris Saint-Germain
Rosengard/Barcelona v Bayern Munich/Paris Saint-Germain
Fortuna Hjorring/City v Wolfsburg/Lyon