With only a few days to go until the first leg of the Champions League Quarter Final, we preview the season opener at St Andrews.
There is a distinct feeling of the changing of the guard at Blues this season. Long standing stalwarts of previous seasons have departed, with younger, fresher players being brought into the club. There is no doubt Captain Laura Bassett and top scorer Rachel Williams, both of whom moved to Chelsea over the winter, will be missed, despite the fact the latter was unavailable for Blues for the majority of the second half of last season. The leadership qualities lost by Bassett’s exit will be hard to replace, although the appointment of Karen Carney is one that ensures the team will be under no illusions of how much the club means to the Birmingham born winger. Izzy Christiansen has signed for WSL newcomers Manchester City, and she will be a big loss, especially with how well she linked up with the front line towards the back end of the 2013 campaign. Last season ended on such a high, the 5-2 victory at the home of the men’s side over Zorky was arguably the display of the season. The likes of Mel Lawley and Kirsty Linnett showed how well they had seamlessly fitted into the BCLFC system, and there will be added pressure on them this season to deliver the goods in the final third of the pitch.
It hasn’t all been exits and departures this pre-season: Midfielder Remi Allen and versatile defender Meaghan Sargeant have joined from the former Lincoln Ladies, and Welsh international attacker Hannah Keryakoplis has bolstered David Parker’s options up front, arriving from Stoke City. I would expect Blues to set up similar to last season, with Carney and Lawley the wide outlets, Allen and Moore patrolling the midfield, with Jo Potter breaking forward to support Linnett up front. The main question marks would be the centre of defence. Assuming Emily Westwood is fit, she would make up one of the back two, but Parker has a decision to make regarding whether Sargeant comes straight in for her debut, or Harrop is moved into central defence, and Hannah George plays. There is plenty of youthful exuberance available to Blues should they feel the need to use it.
The transfer activity at Blues has been nothing compared to that of their quarter final opponents from the capital. Eleven players have left the current FA Cup holders, eight of which were first team regulars last season. The financial muscle of Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and Notts County have accounted for many of Arsenal’s stars of the past three years, while PFA Women’s Player of the Year Kim Little has moved across the pond to re-join her old coach Laura Harvey at Seattle Reign. The Gunners have recruited well, however, bringing in England internationals Siobhan Chamberlain and Casey Stoney from Bristol Academy and Notts County Ladies respectively, Dutch full back Anouk Hoogendijk, Scottish midfielder Christie Murray, along with Japanese duo Yukari Kinga and Shinobu Ohno.
Shelley Kerr has a very tough job gelling this new squad quickly. The loss of key players down the spine of the team such as Little, Houghton and White will mean the side has to adjust, and whilst there are players who can come in and fill the same positions, there can be no hiding the impact Little’s departure will have. Jordan Nobbs is out injured for the first month or so of the league, and this will be another huge blow to the London outfit. A lot of trust will be placed in Dan Carter to supply the level of goals left behind by White, Little and Davison, all of whom always caused Blues numerous problems in previous encounters. It is very difficult to predict the Arsenal line up, what with the huge turnover of players, but they will be hoping to play as many of their experienced players as they can in such a huge game to start the season.
With the first leg providing Blues with home advantage, up against a side very much in transition, I am letting my heart persuade my head in predicting a tight 2-1 victory for the hosts.