Last modified on Thu 1 Apr 2021 04.37 BST
Anyone unfamiliar with the concept of “gallant defeat” need have looked no further than Manchester City for a perfect definition on Wednesday.
Gareth Taylor’s team may have bowed out of the Champions League on aggregate at a sun‑drenched Academy Stadium but they went down fighting and, above all, with a certain style. Hats off to Keira Walsh who excelled in central midfield, at times suggesting Lluís Cortés’s Spanish champions are mortal after all.
At kick-off City needed to overturn a 3-0 first-leg deficit, but Barcelona had not leaked four goals in a game since losing the 2019 Champions League final 4-1 against Lyon.
Since then the Spanish side – who will face either Lyon or PSG in the semi final – have evolved into a considerably more formidable ensemble and Taylor could have done without an absentee list which deprived him of two England defenders in the injured Steph Houghton and Demi Stokes.
If Lauren Hemp’s late withdrawal with an ear infection seemed another significant blow it was mitigated in the 20th minute when Janine Beckie’s close-range finish gave City the lead. Beckie would almost certainly not have started had Hemp been available but the Canada forward was in the right place at the right time when Sam Mewis flicked on Alex Greenwood’s corner. With Barcelona confounded by the 6ft Mewis – aka the “Tower of Power” – at that set piece all that remained was for Beckie to stab the ball beyond Sandra Paños. It was the first goal Barcelona’s keeper had conceded in two months.
When, shortly afterwards, Greenwood was wrongfooted by Caroline Graham Hansen and Ellie Roebuck could only parry the latter’s shot into Asisat Oshoala’s path, the Nigerian seemed certain to equalise.
Instead Lucy Bronze refused to bow to the apparently inevitable and somehow rescued the situation courtesy of an outstanding goal‑line block which left Oshoala smiling in sheer disbelief.
Undeterred, Barça’s star forward tried again. With half-time beckoning, her glorious change of offside trap defying pace left Greenwood trailing.
Although Roebuck parried the ensuing shot, it rebounded to Oshoala who was, once again, thwarted by another last-ditch clearance by Bronze.
Although City had started brightly the left side of Taylor’s defence was increasingly coming undone and they were a little fortunate to be ahead at the interval. Roebuck was eventually beaten when a bout of kamikaze defending resulted in Greenwood’s attempted clearance falling to Hansen whose cut-back cued up Oshoala to apply the scoring touch.
As Lieke Martens – who missed a late volleyed sitter – replaced Hansen, only a supreme optimist would have argued City were now playing for anything more than pride but, creditably, they refused to fold with Walsh continuing to excel. When a slick passing move concluded with Mewis picking out Ellen White, the England forward was tripped in the box and Mewis stepped forward to convert the penalty as the sun finally started sinking over Manchester.
“The girls gave everything,” said Taylor. “The fightback was great. We fought to the end – but we just came up a little bit short.”