Time for the Women’s Champions League to spread its wings

Eni Aluko on 13 September 2018

Wednesday was a historic occasion for Juventus Women. Everyone knows the men’s team have been synonymous with success in Europe over the years and that’s certainly what the women are trying to build as well after we began our Champions League campaign with a 2-2 draw against the Danish champions, Brondby.

This is the first time Juventus have been in this competition and we are not seeded, so that meant we could have been drawn against anyone including the reigning champions, Lyon, or Wolfsburg, . At this stage you want to feel confident you can at least compete so Brondby was a good draw in that sense.

Because the Women’s Champions League doesn’t have group stages, there is a lot of pressure on the draw to be favourable. I’ve been there before with Chelsea in our first season, when we drew Glasgow in the first round and then Wolfsburg. The nature of the competition means it can be very difficult to build experience in Europe, with some potential David v Goliath match-ups.

Uefa should look at introducing a group stage for next season because it feels like a huge missed opportunity at the moment. There are plenty of clubs in the European leagues with big enough squads and resources to play more matches in the Champions League – women’s football is trying to grow up not just domestically but internationally, and the more games that are played at a higher level the better it will be for the whole of the game. Uefa needs to think seriously about extending the competition to have the same setup as the men.

Wednesday night was our first game of the season so that’s a lot of pressure to have on when you know that one bad result and it could be all over. We’ve been working hard for six weeks and the defeats against Arsenal and Chelsea in pre-season friendlies were a humbling experience for everyone. Never say never but you have to be realistic about our chances this season – a good target is the last eight and to try to build confidence from there. After the first leg, this target is still in sight and there is everything to play for to go and win in Denmark on 26 September. Champions League football is one of the primary reasons I joined Juventus so I am determined to help the team succeed in the competition.

There are a lot differences in pre-season training in Italy, with a big focus on sports science and running mechanics. We have an entire session dedicated to running and change of direction for injury prevention, which has really impressed me. Female athletes are more susceptible to knee injuries so any specific work to develop movement and change of direction mechanics to protect the knees is brilliant.I’d say the biggest difference is at Chelsea there was a big culture of “periodisation”, which places emphasis on freshness for games, whereas my body has had to adapt to a difference in culture that means I am doing fitness 48 hours after a game, which for many years has been a rest day for my body.

As a result, my recovery strategies have become more important, which means soaking in the Epsom magnesium bath three or four times every week compared with only once. I’ve been using magnesium baths for about four years now and it helps to replenish my legs and stop things like cramp and muscle fatigue.

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There is also a lot of emphasis on technical drills at Juventus to the extent that the whole warm-up will sometimes be just a series of them. Rita Guarino is one of the best technical coaches I have had in my career – often she demonstrates a specific technique and shows the players up! Specific technical training is not something I have done since I was a kid and this is potentially a reason why we have not been able to find the next Gazza or someone like Eden Hazard or Lionel Messi in England for both women and men.

Eden Hazard
Eden Hazard has the technical skills required to escape from any situation on the pitch. Photograph: Robert Perry/EPA

From a young age in England I felt technical skills were coached out of me. I remember when I was 15 doing a rainbow flick over a player’s head in training and the coach telling me off and shouting: “This is not the Eni show.” That discouraged me from expressing myself individually with the ball in that team again. Yes, there has been a move towards more possession-style football in England but not necessarily the ability for individual players to have massive amounts of skill and get themselves out of tricky situations. Someone like Hazard can have three players around him and it doesn’t matter because his balance and his skill get him out of that pressured situation. I don’t know many English players who can do that. Players such as Ross Barkley or Adam Lallana have that ability but don’t play regularly enough for their clubs. To come to Italy and have 30-minute drills based only on technical ability has been amazing. Hopefully that will really help me add an extra element to my game.

One nice about this team is that they spend a lot of time together off the pitch. That makes it easier to get to know people outside of a football environment and I already feel like I’ve known some of the girls for longer than two months because we have connected well. The team keep asking me to show them some new dance moves, I’ve taught some of the Italian girls how to throw a few shapes. Some are a bit stiff so there is a bit of a way to go.

Life in Italy is incredible – I had two days off last month and went to Portofino near Genoa. It felt like I was in the Garden of Eden! Such a beautiful place. I was joking with one of my teammates saying: “Why do Italians ever leave Italy?” It has everything – the mountains and the sea are an hour away and then you have all the great cities like Turin, Rome and Milan.

The Reggia di Venaria palace is only 20 minutes from my place and it is absolutely stunning. I love going to visit places and then being able to read up on the history afterwards. Off the pitch I’ve always believed it is healthy to switch off from football and have completely different interests too. I love to do other things and have a healthy work-life balance so to be in a place that is so rich in history, culture and food is really exciting for me.

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