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The first of this year’s Champions League quarter-finals takes place on Saturday as Frankfurt make the journey to Bristol. The visitors are overwhelming favourites to win the tie, but if they underestimate their opponents they will be on the wrong end of an upset.
One of the main reasons why the German side come into this game as favourites is because they come into this game with match fitness. The Frauen-Bundesliga has a winter season, running from late August to mid-May, so Frankfurt’s squad is fully in the swing of playing week in week out, whereas Bristol’s domestic campaign does not get underway until early next month. They have played two pre-season friendlies, one against Millwall last month and another against Aston Villa on the first of this month, but they are not in a routine like their opponents. Of course, the players are fit and will have been preparing for this game properly for a while now, but physical fitness and match fitness could not be more different.
Another setback for the hosts of the first leg has been the transfer window. Bristol have lost numerous key players during the off-season, many of whom are largely responsible for the team getting as far as the quarter-finals in this competition. Natasha Harding has left the club whilst Natalia has joined Arsenal after both played key roles on the attack for Bristol last year; scoring four of their eight Champions League goals so far. Laura del Rio is another significant loss, the attacker, largely used as an impact sub, having joined Birmingham in search of more playing time. At the back, Jemma Rose and Corinne Yorston have also moved on, the former to Arsenal and the latter to Yeovil, leaving a gaping hole in a defence which has kept two clean sheets in their four games so far in this competition.
Seven players signing new deals has undoubtedly cushioned the blow of losing so many important players, especially when Sophie Ingle, Nikki Watts and Angharad James fall into those seven, but Dave Edmondson has also brought in plenty of new faces to bolster his squad and replace those that have left. However, bringing the team together will not be an easy job and will take time – perhaps too long to be ready for these two big games against Frankfurt.
Frankfurt have been a lot more fortunate in the build up to this game when it comes to personnel. Jess Fishlock is on loan in Germany from American club Seattle Reign and one expected her to return to the States before this quarter-final to join her teammates ahead of the NWSL season, which kicks off on April 11th. However, Frankfurt have managed to keep Fishlock in Europe for this game which is a huge boost. She helps make up one of the most exciting midfield trios in world football, joining with Dzsenifer Marozsan and Veronica Boquete, who recently made her loan from Portland Thorns to Frankfurt permanent, to create a combination in the middle of the park more than good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Lyon’s or Wolfsburg’s. With midfield often one of the key areas in big games, retaining the services of Fishlock could be so important and the German side will hope to have her available for the return leg too on March 29th, just two weeks before the start of the 2015 NWSL.
The visitors also come into this game in impeccable form. They have not lost since the turn of the year, winning all four of their games to make it five consecutive league victories since back-to-back defeats to Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg at the back end of last year. Their emphatic 5-1 victory over fellow top-two chasers Turbine Potsdam in mid-February was one of the most impressive performances they have put on all season and it certainly will have made Bristol manager Dave Edmondson feel slightly uneasy given the manner of it. With Bristol yet to get their new domestic campaign underway, they do not come into the game with any measurable form and will have to rely on their grit and determination with their levels of confidence difficult to determine and unlikely to be consistent throughout the team, unlike Frankfurt.
Still, the Germans are at a disadvantage though as they must face SGS Essen tonight before making the long journey to England in good time before Saturday evening’s kick-off. Essen have been the best of the rest in the Frauen-Bundesliga this season, sitting fifth with twenty-five points (fifteen behind Potsdam in fourth), and they will be hoping Frankfurt show them some disrespect in resting plenty of players ahead of their Champions League game.
Manager Colin Bell has a very tough decision to make tonight. If he rests too many players, Essen have the quality to punish him and dent Frankfurt’s hopes of a title challenge which have suddenly come to life following their five successive victories. They are only two points behind leaders Wolfsburg and cannot risk dropping points if they want to be within a shout of at least a spot in the top two. However, with a huge game in just three days, Bell has some seriously thinking to do when it comes to picking his team. With this league game tonight, Bristol on Saturday, the return leg next Sunday and then a DFB Pokal semi-final against Potsdam two days later, the end of March is going to be season-defining for his side and fatigue cannot be allowed to play an unwanted part in influencing the outcomes of these important matches.
Having been named captain last month, Grace McCatty’s first competitive match wearing the armband at Bristol will be arguably the biggest game of her career so far as she attempts to give her side the upper hand in the first leg of a Champions League quarter final. Following the departures of Rose and Yorston, Bristol need someone to step up in defence and take control, and having been given such an important role, McCatty is sure to rise to the occasion to do so. She will have her work cut out for her on her big evening though with Celia Sasic bound to be in the mood for goals. However, a solid performance from her defensively and in terms of her communication could give Bristol a fantastic result to take into the second leg.
With Frankfurt boasting a formidable midfield, Angharad James’ performance on Saturday will be very important to the hosts. Despite her age (she is just twenty-years-old), James is a very experienced player already and she has proven over the last three years at Bristol that her performances can win games for her side. With over thirty caps for Wales already, she has proven her maturity and ability on the international stage too and now has the chance to do so on the European stage. James’ distribution is very impressive and she can pick out a teammate from anywhere on the pitch. Her chance creation will be important in this tie too as Bristol have lost many of their top scoring talent and may need several opportunities before they make a breakthrough, so James will have to be on her toes and fully concentrated to keep the good service coming. She is going to have to put on a solid display on all fronts in what is going to be a big night for her and her team.
Celia Sasic is in formidable form at the moment and has netted six goals in four Champions League games this season. Domestically, she is the Frauen-Bundesliga’s top scorer with fifteen goals in twelve games and is well on track to beating her personal best of twenty goals in a season, which she recorded last term. She is a classic poacher who sniffs out opportunities and gets into fantastic positions, but she carries a modern twist with sublime skill, giving her the ability to score some beautiful goals created by great footwork and completed with lovely finishes. A nuisance for defenders and a reliable penalty taker, Sasic has netted a wonderful variety of goals this season and will be Bristol’s biggest worry this Saturday when she leads the line for Frankfurt.
However, Bristol’s worries do not end there. Dzsenifer Marozsan is arguably the pick of the Frankfurt’s world-class midfield trio and she will be so influential in determining the outcome of this tie. Composed on the ball and able to dictate play, Marozsan is perhaps the team’s most talented footballer too and she will be the one supplying Sasic with the high quality service that she will turn into goals. With an eye for a pass and the ability to distribute the ball accurately every time, Bristol simply need to stifle her on Saturday and stop her from controlling the game, maybe by assigning a player to man-mark her for the whole game as this is the sort of attention that will be required to thwart her creativity. She is also a danger from dead ball situations, delivering free-kicks and corners into the area just as effectively and precisely as she strikes them at goal. With three goals and four assists in four games in the competition so far, as well as seven goals in the Frauen-Bundesliga, Marozsan’s performances over the two legs will be key in determining the outcome of this tie.
The game is sure to be won in midfield, with both teams sporting fantastic players in the middle of the park. Bristol have a great trio in their midfield with three Welsh internationals who all have a great understanding of each other’s game. Hayley Ladd may be new to the team, but she should slip in seamlessly given her international connections and all round ability. However, Frankfurt are sure to dictate play with Marozsan likely to be the controller of the game’s tempo as Bristol play on the counter.
The hosts have had little time to prepare as a team with all their new additions and few opportunities to play together and I think this will show over the two legs. The upheaval in their squad is sure to have unsettled them and Frankfurt can take full advantage this Saturday by winning the away leg of this quarter-final before going on to seal their place in the last four on their own patch. Perhaps if this fixture had been played a few months ago or if Bristol had the same squad they reached this stage with, this prediction would be different, but with Frankfurt’s match fitness, more stable squad and superb form, they should be victorious at the weekend.
Hi, I’m Ameé, I write reguarly about the English Football League on my blog, A Pitchside View, and also women’s football at A Women’s Pitchside View. If you liked this post, please feel free to rate it and also check out other pieces I’ve written on these sites, as well as on Fanthem. Thank you.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Ameé Ruszkai