The U-21s season kicks off on Monday and, having reviewed the challenges that await Terry Burton this season, the Arsenal Ladies withdraw from their Olympic hibernation to start the second half of their campaign this Sunday at Everton. Despite a slight wobble in the spring expedited by injuries to key players, which saw them exit the Champions League and the F.A. Cup at the semi-final stage, Laura Harvey left her side sitting pretty come early July.
Arsenal won 6 and drew 1 of their opening seven games, giving them an 8 point cushion at the top of the WSL. They also find themselves in the semi final of the Continental Cup with a trip to Bristol Academy in the pipeline there. Steph Houghton, Alex Scott, Kim Little, Rachel Yankey, Ellie White and Kelly Smith all return from Olympic duty having represented Great Britain. Harvey`s first task will surely be to refocus her Olympians on the task at hand. Unlike men`s football, which sticks out like a Chelsea fan at a MENSA convention at the Olympics, for women`s football it really is the pinnacle of the game. Houghton, Scott, White and Little`s twitter profile pictures all feature them in their GB kit as they are rightly proud of their experience this summer.
However, domestic matters must now take precedent. The rest of the Ladies squad took a summer sabbatical and will be well rested, but Harvey will need to make sure they get straight back into the groove. Gilly Flaherty and Jordan Nobbs have spent a lot of their summer break coaching young girls, which will have helped to keep them tuned up. The WSL is rather hoping that the coverage of the Olympics (70,000 people watched Steph Houghton score the winner against Brazil at Wembley for Team GB) helps to create a legacy. Both in terms of attracting new fans and young girls keen to take up the game.
But for Harvey it`s strictly business now and she`ll need to communicate that. Kelly Smith was eased back into fitness just prior to the Olympic Games; coming off the bench to score twice against Chelsea in Arsenal. She had picked up an ankle injury shortly after signing in April. She picked up another minor knock in the Brazil game at Wembley, which suggests she may have to continue to be handled with care. Smith released an autobiography last month which details the many challenges she has faced in her career- including long term injuries, having missed both legs of Arsenal`s successful 2007 UEFA Cup Final for swearing at supporters in the semi final, as well as overcoming depression and alcoholism in the States. Smith`s career has always been tricky, despite her very natural talent.
Harvey and Arsenal have tough fixtures to negotiate too. Everton away is as tricky a reintroduction as they could have hoped for, whilst the team will aim to have the title already wrapped up before they visit 2nd placed Birmingham City on the final day of the season in October. In an attempt to promote the WSL further, the fixture at Doncaster Belles has been changed to next Saturday evening and will be played immediately after Doncaster Rovers` home League One fixture with Crawley Town. That potentially means another sizeable and partisan crowd to face.
But the girls will look at September as the key month. Consecutive home games against Lincoln City- the only side to take points off of Arsenal in the league this season (they beat Arsenal in the Continental Cup too), Liverpool, who have recently changed manager to ex Chelsea boss Matt Beard. Beard presided over Chelsea`s fortuitous F.A. Cup semi final win over Arsenal in May and one against Doncaster Belles. Victory in all three of those games will all but guarantee the girls the title. Given their cushion, they can probably afford to draw at Everton and Doncaster- though Arsenal will have no such intention of playing with that mindset. Harvey will look at the break positively insofar as what it means for getting injured players back. Ellie White had suffered a long term back injury, but her efforts with TeamGB will have put the edge back on her match sharpness. Jayne Ludlow`s persistent calf injury will have had time to heal, as will have Danielle Carter`s troublesome achilles. Prospects of a domestic double look good, Laura Harvey will need to ensure that focus remains high to guide her girls over the line. LD.