Just 17 days after the Women’s World Cup final in Sydney, the new European season begins across the continent tomorrow with a set of vital winner-takes-all qualifiers in the premiere club competition, the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
With the start of the Women’s Super League still four weeks away, eyebrows have been raised at the scheduling of such important games so soon after the end of the Women’s World Cup. The Round 1 qualifiers which take place this week involve 41 of the domestic champions from around Europe plus some of the next-best teams from the continent’s sixteen strongest leagues, like former European champions Arsenal, who finished third in England last season.
Speaking in May, when the prospect of Arsenal having to play this match seemed certain, their coach Jonas Eidevall pointed to the decision of FIFA to schedule the Women’s World Cup so late in the alloted window reserved for the finals suggesting that “we can’t change the number of games, but we can change where the tournament is played in the summer. That is where they are doing things better on the men’s side.”
Seven Arsenal players were in the squads of Australia, England and Sweden who all played on the final weekend of the month-long World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Nonetheless, all seven players – Steph Catley, Caitlin Foord, Lotte Wubben-Moy, Alessia Russo, Amanda Ilestedt, Lina Hurtig and Stina Blackstenius – returned to training at London Colney last week and have been included among the squad registered for their Champions League qualifier away to Swedish team Linköping FC.
Also included for the first time in ten months is the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year, Beth Mead. The top scorer and Player of the Tournament at the UEFA Women’s Euro last year, Mead ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her right leg on November 19. It was an injury that led to her missing the remainder of the club season and the Women’s World Cup. However, she has now resumed full training and seems set to return to first-team action this week.
The presence of three of Sweden’s bronze medal winners at the World Cup – Hurtig and Blackstenius are former Linköping players – in addition to Arsenal’s Swedish head coach Jonas Eidevall has added local interest to a tie already laden with significance for both clubs. Currently second in the Swedish league, the Damallsvenskan, the match will be Linköping’s first in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in five years.
As of last week, 6,100 tickets have been sold for the 7,400-capacity Linköping Arena. The largest-ever attendance for a women’s Champions League match in Sweden was for the 2003 final first-leg between local rivals Umeå and Fortuna Hjørring when 7,648 were in attendance at the Gammliavallen stadium.
Four years later, Arsenal attracted a crowd of 6,265 to the same venue when they took on Umeå in the first leg of the 2007 final. Alex Scott scored the only goal which eventually won the title for the North London side. That remains the only occasion on which an English side has won the UEFA Women’s Champions League, then known as the UEFA Women’s Cup.
Outside of the final, the largest-ever crowd for a women’s Champions League match in Sweden was set back in 2015. Then 5,976 attended the Round of 16 tie between KIF Örebro and Paris Saint-Germain at the Behrn Arena.
The Linköping Arena also hosted four games at the UEFA Women’s Euro in 2013, including all three matches involving England. A record 7,448 watched the quarter-final between France and Denmark, won by the Scandinavians on a penalty shoot-out.
Arsenal and Linköping have previously met once in the competition. In 2011, the two teams drew twice in a two-legged quarter-final. The two goals scored by Arsenal in Sweden edged the Londeners into the next round on the now defunct away-goals rule.
Unlike then, tomorrow’s game is a one-off cup tie as part of a four-team mini-league. The winners will meet the winners of Wednesday’s other qualification tie between Paris FC and Kryvbas Women of Ukraine at the same Linköping Arena on Saturday.
The eventual victors will process to Round 2 of qualification in October. The five winners of those ties will join eleven domestic champions in the lucrative group stage of the UEFA Women’s Champions League beginning in November.