On Wednesday the Blues will make their debut in the semi-finals of the International Women's Club Championship, the female equivalent of the Fifa Club World Cup
By Liam Twomey
A year ago, a 12,000-mile round trip to Japan provided the nadir of a tortuously long and arduous season for Chelsea. Led by the most unpopular manager in the club’s history, a maiden Fifa Club World Cup campaign ended in tears and defeat to a powerful and disciplined Corinthians side.
But now circumstances have led the club east again. On Wednesday Chelsea Ladies will make their debut as European representatives in the International Women’s Club Championship against Australian giants Sydney FC in Okayama. The tournament, also known as the Mobcast Cup, is the equivalent female competition to the Club World Cup, though it is not officially sanctioned by Fifa.
They enter at the semi-finals and, should they win, will face either Japanese League Cup winners INAC Kobe Leonessa or Copa Libertadores Femenina holders Colo Colo in Sunday’s final in Tokyo.
The Blues’ presence in the competition is serendipitous – they were invited after Champions League holders Wolfsburg turned down the chance to represent Europe – and some might be tempted to view it as a shot at redemption of sorts. But star striker and England international Eni Aluko insists the Ladies have their own reasons for dreaming of the trophy.
“I watched the game last year with the men and it was really exciting to see them play in such a different environment,” she tells Goal. “It would be really nice for us to win. We want to prove ourselves, particularly because we had a bad season last year. It would be nice to prove the doubters wrong who say that Chelsea Ladies are all talk and no action.
“It’s a chance to get used to a different style of play and get our pre-season underway early, but it’s also a commercial opportunity for the team, and for Japanese sponsors to find out what Chelsea Ladies are all about.
“We don’t know too much about the other teams and players out there, but that might actually work in our favour. We’ve just got to play our game and put good things into practice. It’s a bit of a voyage of discovery for everyone, but a good one.”
The choice of Chelsea as Wolfsburg’s replacement has rankled with some. They finished seventh in the eight-team Women’s Super League last season with just three wins in 14 matches, a slump compounded by the departures of joint-top scorer Eva Jakobsson and Brazil international Ester.
But the Blues’ lofty ambitions have not waned. Japan star and Fifa Ballon d’Or shortlisted Yuki Ogimi remains – and was likely the key reason for their invitation to the tournament – while England internationals Laura Bassett and Rachel Williams have joined to bolster the ranks.
Manager Emma Hayes has revealed more fresh faces are likely to arrive before the new WSL season begins next April, and Williams believes the club’s Japan assignment can only boost preparations.
“Going before pre-season to Japan to play in a big tournament like that can only be good for us,” she insists. “It will also help us bond as a team, because there are quite a few players coming in this summer. It gives us a sort of mini-pre-season before the real one to lay some groundwork.
“We’re not just going there for a bit of fun though, for a laugh and a joke, we want to go and win it and be as competitive as we can be. It’s a long way to go to come home empty-handed.
“But it gives all the girls a taste of something new. They might not have done as well as they would have liked last season, but I’m sure we can compete for the Champions League places next year.”
Making good on that pledge will be no easy task. Liverpool, 2013 WSL champions, remain strong, while Bristol Academy and Arsenal – the most successful side in English women’s football history – are expected to challenge again. New entrants Manchester City are building from a lower base, but have already acquired the England trio of Karen Bardsley, Jill Scott and Toni Duggan.
But Aluko remains confident about Chelsea’s chances, and believes increased domestic competition will only help the women’s game continue on the upward curve which has seen attendances rise and WSL matches broadcast live on BT Sport, while the league itself will expand to two divisions from 2014.
“It’s a game that’s growing and a game we’re excited about,” she adds. “People want to see more of it and the profiles of the players are growing. It’s fantastic and it’s what we deserve, to be honest. We’ve worked hard for a very long time. We train as hard as the men do, and for the love of the game. Now there’s more to it, and young girls see it as a potential career path.
“I think top four has to be the minimum aim for us, and hopefully we’ll be competing for honours. That’s the whole point really, because we’re signing some very strong players.”
Williams, a plasterer by trade who has fought hard to gain recognition for club and country while earning a living, is similarly upbeat about the sport’s future.
“It can be as big as we want it to be, as big as the FA and the sponsors want it to get,” she insists.
“In my job I work with a lot of men, and when I tell them now that I play for Chelsea, I’ve played for England and I was at the Olympics, they’ll have a cup of tea with me.
“They wouldn’t even give me the time of day before. Credit to all the girls out there doing it, because they’re the reason it has become what it is.”
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