Welsh Premier Women’s League Champions Cardiff Met start their Champions League qualifying campaign this week with their eyes firmly on making it through to the first round proper.
The Archers have flown out to Kharkiv in Ukraine and play the first of three games in a mini tournament on Tuesday against Romanian side Olimpia Cluj.
They’ll play the host side. Kharkiv, on Friday before their final game against Malta’s Birkirkara on the following Monday.
This is one of ten groups competing for 12 places in the first round proper. The ten group winners and top two teams with the best results against those who finished first and third in their group go through to Round of 32 draw on 17 August.
This is where the big teams like holders Lyon, Manchester City and Chelsea, where Wales women’s captain Sophie Ingle plays, come into the competition.
The reigning Welsh champions haven’t made it through to the main tournament before but manager Kerry Harris says that has to be the objective this time.
“We’ve established ourselves now. We’ve been in the competition a number of times and year-by-year we’ve built on our performance.
“For us there are some critics that would argue we are just turning up and there is no expectation to get out of the group.
“But for me, the players and the staff the expectation is that it’s possible, it’s within touching distance and I think this year especially we’ve got a group where we’re capable of doing that.”
If you don’t know much about Romanian, Ukrainian and Maltese women’s football, you’re not alone. A rudimentary search of Youtube turned up little except a game between Olimpia Cluj and Swansea City Ladies last season, but Kerry isn’t phased by that.
“We try and do as much research on the opposition as much as possible. There is a bit out there for us, but there is also a danger of basing analysis on their last campaign. If you look at us we were a very, very different side to what we are now.”
The Archers go into this season having kept the core of the side which saw them lose just one game on the way to the league title last season and have made some signings to add strength in depth to their squad.
“We’ve strengthened what we had last year. We had a league winning side, we haven’t got rid of anybody, we’ve kept that core 16 and increased the numbers and strength and depth with that.
“If we’re to reflect on previous years I think the squad size was an issue in relation to injuries, so we’ve learned from that and we’re going out with a much bigger squad.
“Previously it would have been 18 but now we’re going out with 25 good players.
“There’s a mixture of domestic players, some from the English Premier League, but also a few overseas players which add the athleticism which we have been lacking in previous years.”
Robyn Pinder also returns to the team having taken a season off to try her hand at rugby but is back in the squad and ready for her fourth Champions League campaign:
“I needed a break from football and a fresh challenge. I only did it because I was quite good at it! I played some sevens, played a sevens tournament in an invitational side and now I’ve come full circle.”
Robyn has slotted straight back into the side and is very clear about what she expects over the next week.
“My objective is 100 per cent to qualify. I’ve been to four, I’m a veteran in this game now! I think potentially this is the best squad we’ve got going out there. There’s a good vibe about us. We play as a team really well, we’re solid in defence, we’ve worked a lot on our shape. We’re going out there with one purpose and that is to qualify.”
“It’s such a good experience especially for the girls who haven’t had much experience at this sort of level. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had being involved in the Champions League. It’s nice to spend time with your mates and be treated like a professional athlete despite not being one. And it’s also a platform too.”
One player treating the opportunity exactly like that will be new signing at Cardiff Met, Chloe Chivers. The 19-year-old Wales international has moved from Oxford to play in the Welsh Premier Women’s League.
She made her debut for Wales against Kazakhstan in the World Cup qualifier at the Liberty Stadium and is settling in nicely with the Archers.
“To play Champions League football is a great experience and more experience to get under my belt really. I’m looking to enjoy myself again and make a name for myself in the Champions League and see what happens from there.”
Cardiff Met fixtures:
Olimpia Cluj, 7 August, KO 0900
Kharkiv, 10 August, KO 1500
Birkirkara, 13 August, KO 1600
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