European glory is not the only thing at stake on Sunday for Arsenal Ladies. They must overturn a 1-0 deficit against Birmingham City in the Champions League quarter-final second leg to match last year’s run to the semi-finals.
But there is more at stake than that. The last few months have not been easy for Arsenal Ladies, the dominant force of the English game suddenly finding that other teams have caught up with them.
Last year they relinquished their Women’s Super League title, finishing third, behind Liverpool who beat them 4-0 at the Emirates. They were not helped, either, by a three-point deduction for fielding an unregistered player. Then, over the winter break, their captain Steph Houghton signed for Manchester City Ladies while last year’s PFA player of the year Kim Little moved abroad to play for the Seattle Reign.
Arsenal Ladies coach Shelley Kerr knows that they have a fight on to re-establish their dominance, but is relishing the challenge. “We are a victim of our own success,” Kerr said. “Every single game we go into, everyone has expectations that we’re going to win. I think that’s slowly changing. Other clubs are bridging the gap. That was always going to come.”
Kerr was obviously disappointed to lose Houghton – “a fantastic role model and a fantastic player” – and Little, but is confident of building a new team. Kelly Smith is the new captain, Alex Scott the vice-captain and the club have signed two Japan internationals, Yukari Kinga and Shinobu Ohno. “We have been in since the first week in January, brought in new players and they have gelled really well in training. Some of the football we have played in pre-season has been amazing.”
With Arsenal up against Liverpool and Manchester City, this is set to be one of the tightest seasons in living memory, which Kerr is relishing. “It will probably be the most competitive WSL campaign yet this season, it’s brilliant having that challenge.”
The best way to start, then, would be to beat Birmingham in Edgware on Sunday. “We could have played a lot better in the first leg. We have got an opportunity to put that right on Sunday.”