This is not the continental cup that Birmingham City Ladies wanted to be involved in. After the men’s team enjoyed a European campaign of their own last season – unluckily getting knocked out of the Europa League behind Braga and Club Brugge (despite the Championship side clocking a laudable 10 points in the group) – it looked as though the women’s team had their own European tour to look forward to.
Instead, it was far more short-lived than that. By virtue of England’s coefficient, Blues Ladies entered the Uefa Women’s Champions League in the round-of-32, by which time the tournament had already entered its knockout stage. And despite taking a 2-0 lead into the second leg from a good result at Stratford’s DCS Stadium, their opponents Bardolino Verona tied the scores up in Italy through two goals by Cristina Girelli. Her third, scored in the second half of extra-time, was decisive.
No – instead, tonight it is the Continental Cup that the Birmingham Ladies are involved in, with a capital ‘C’ – as per the name of the competition’s sponsor, the tyre manufacturer. Officially this is the FA WSL Cup, whose entry is limited to the eight teams which compete in the recently-formed Women’s Super League (unlike the 276 teams that entered last year’s Women’s FA Cup). Last year, the first round effectively was a quarter-final; an alteration to the format means this year at least sees the competition split into a group stage, with two pools of four. But the tournament’s title sounds a little more grandiose than it probably should.
But the chance of another title is not to be sneered at, by any means. For a club like Birmingham, the chance to win a second trophy this year – to add to their first ever Women’s FA Cup which they lifted after a nail-biting contest and penalty shoot-out at Ashton Gate against Chelsea Ladies earlier this year – is an exciting prospect. Arsenal’s dominance of women’s football (even long before the semi-professional WSL was established last year) means few other teams have ever had a sniff of silverware – certainly not in the league, at least. The chance to upset the odds on cup-final day is about as good an opportunity as is likely to present itself.
To put things into perspective, Arsenal Ladies did not struggle in their Champions League tie – they dispatched Barcelona Femenino 7-0 on aggregate and will meet the 2010 winners Turbine Potsdam in the next round. They were unbeaten at the end of the WSL season last weekend, having sewn up the title at a canter. And the WSL’s leading goal-scorer Kim Little has a goalscoring ratio for the Gunners of more than a goal per game – the kind of record which has pundits purring about Cristiano Ronaldo’s feats for Real Madrid in the men’s game. With several of this summer’s Team GB squad in their ranks too, they are a formidable force.
But, Birmingham are getting closer. They finished second in the WSL behind Arsenal, and earned a 1-1 draw against the Gunners on the season’s finale last Sunday. Tonight’s tie – which takes place at Underhill, home of Barnet – is a rematch of last season’s fixture which Arsenal came out 4-1 winners. Birmingham however can also boast their own starlets – no less than playmaker Karen Carney, goal-threat Rachel Williams and the infectious Eni Aluko – all of which also starred at the Olympics this summer. And the revival of Jodie Taylor, finishing second in the goalscoring charts to Arsenal’s Little this year, is also cause for optimism.
The gulf is no larger than when their male counterparts met at Wembley 18 months ago; I struggled to make a solid case for the Blues on that occasion, but football proved (as it so often does) that a cup final can make a mockery of the form book. So there’s no reason why the Birmingham Ladies should let their continental hangover get the better of them – they should instead be confident of some Continental success.