Arsenal Ladies are used to winning. With 38 trophies in 25 years that makes for one hell of a habit. Each season English football's pre-eminent side are more or less expected to clean up domestically – despite the development of the FA Women's Super League (FAWSL) – which is precisely what makes winning in Europe so special. Ask any Arsenal player which trophy they most long for and the reply is the same: the elusive Champions League.
On Wednesday, the London club take on the Italian league winners, Sardinia's ASD Torres, in the quarter-finals of the competition, yearning for a shot at a trophy they have not won since their maiden victory in 2007. Five years and counting, the gap yawns wide for a club that has accumulated so much silverware they could eat their pre-match meals from it.
Conquering Europe, however, is different. "It's the one you really want to win, it's the elite, the cream of the crop," says Arsenal's star midfielder, Kelly Smith. "Everyone's hungry to do well."
This year there is an added incentive as Chelsea host the final at Stamford Bridge, and a promotion drive in ticket sales hopes to emulate the kind of crowds seen for women's football during London 2012, when more than 70,000 watched England's women beat Brazil at Wembley.
Numbers anywhere near that figure would be an incredible advancement on the 3,000-odd who travelled to Arsenal's home ground in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, to witness the side being crowned champions of Europe back in 2007. Victory this year, though, will be a tougher ask than ever, admits Smith – with fellow quarter-finalists Lyon on the hunt to win for a third year in a row.
"We'd all admit we were a bit lucky in the final playing Umea [the Swedish side they beat 1-0]. We were under the cosh for a lot of the game at home, they were putting us under pressure, hitting the bar and the post, but luck was on our side that year and I think it was written in the stars that we were supposed to win it. But I think this year we've got a really strong squad. If we stick together and work on the new philosophy that the coach has brought in I think we've got a good chance."
The new coach is the former Scotland Under-19s manager Shelley Kerr, a surprise – and little-known – name for the most coveted job in the English game. The Torres fixture will be the 43-year-old's first game in charge of Arsenal – a quirk of the women's season, with the league competition now running through the summer, but European and FA Cup competitions running to the traditional calendar – something of a baptism of fire for the Scot. No pressure then.
"I see it as a challenge, but I wouldn't say I feel under pressure," says Kerr, with a steely, no-nonsense stare. "There's an exceptional group of players here and I'm very fortunate to be at the helm and get the appointment. If you ask anyone in women's football it's a well sought after job so I'm very privileged and honoured to be the head coach."
Kerr says she has no idea who else was approached for the role, only that she did not hesitate in accepting. "I didn't need to think about it for longer than a second."
Her players to be, however, were left scratching their heads as news filtered in of the appointment – Smith confesses that she hadn't a clue who Kerr was. "I actually admit that I googled what she looked like and what her coaching experience was because I'd never heard of her before," the 34-year-old says. "But Vic [Akers, director of football] spoke very highly of her and appreciated her work which she'd done with the Scotland Under-19 team, and Jennifer Beattie and Kim Little had also been coached by her in the [Scottish] youth system and they had nothing but good things to say about her."
Indeed, any concerns over being led by a new manager at such a crucial stage in Europe's premier club competition were quickly put to rest by Kerr. "I was a little bit worried that the new coach wouldn't know too much about the team that we're playing but speaking to her she's done a lot of homework," Smith says. "We'll have pen pics on all the individuals in the Torres team and we'll have video, so she's really researched them and we hope to get to the next round."
Arsenal had expected to enjoy a warm-up game under Kerr – they were set to face Nottingham Forest in the fifth round of the FA Cup last Sunday – but a waterlogged pitch put paid to that, underlining some of the frustrations that linger in the women's game. Ask players for their wish list of improvements to the sport and better pitches rank highly – a pretty moderate request for a group of talented players who are mostly still unable to earn a full-time wage from football. The Team GB and Arsenal defender Steph Houghton likens some of the pitches they play on to "a beach with no grass on".
Smith, meanwhile, laments the fact that even trailblazing Arsenal train only twice a week, a huge source of frustration for a player who enjoyed the full-time professional environment that the now-collapsed US leagues had offered. "All the players want to be training more," Smith says. "We've been successful within the league and the [domestic] cup but I think if you want to win that Champions League final you've got to be more regular. It just helps with your technique, your confidence and your fitness to be on the ball more. Four hours a week is not enough." Kerr may well be the woman to change that. Following in the footsteps of Liverpool Ladies, who this season became the first FAWSL club to train full-time, she is already holding discussions with the players over how to increase the hours.
One of just a handful of female coaches to hold the Uefa pro licence, Kerr has an intensity about her that indicates she means business. Is she a hard taskmaster? "Yes," she says. "Two major words that I reinforce to the players all the time are that I love discipline and organisation." Sounds like another famous Scot. Indeed Kerr praises two Scottish coaching masters in Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes – both men who contributed to the pro licence course she attended – as well as her club contemporary, Arsène Wenger. Coaching, she says, is a vocation to which she has always been drawn. "Even when I was a player I was interested in it, from an early age of 18."
It must be frustrating, then, that she heads full throttle into a Champions League quarter-final with just two training sessions under her belt with the full squad, and zero matches. "It is what it is," she says, shrugging. "The good thing is that the players are very experienced and so that's a bonus. The players here are very professional. They're used to playing at that stage of the competition so I don't think it's a huge issue at all."
Houghton says the team have, by now, grown used to reaching the latter stages of the Champions League before their own league season has kicked off. "We've done it the last two seasons [since the inaugural FAWSL season in 2011], maybe not played as many games as we'd have wanted to ahead of a quarter-final but we've got players in the squad who can do the job. It's helped that a few of us have been on international duty in Cyprus – getting four quality games under our belt." Indeed, one of those matches, England's 4-2 win over Italy, will have helped to inform the fixture against Torres – whose side is largely made up of players from the national team. Pitching in to help have also been the former manager, now director of football, Akers – the Arsenal men's team kitman – and the men's first-team coach, Neil Banfield.
"It was really good, really refreshing for someone else to come in and have a different opinion," Houghton says. "Neil was coaching us like footballers, it wasn't different as in men and women. If you did something wrong he wasn't afraid to bollock you. The girls were buzzing."
The team hope that excitement can carry them through the trip to Sardinia, and all the way to Stamford Bridge. "I think we can get to the final," Smith says, "but the next game is crucial for us."
Victory over Torres would almost certainly suggest a place in the final as the draw would not pit them against Lyon before then. "They're definitely the team to watch out for," says Smith, whose side would face either Germany's Wolfsburg or Russians Rossiyanka before then, "and it would be a great game to have an English side there against the French team – I've put them in the final already, I don't see anyone else getting through if I'm honest. If we get there though, with the home crowd behind us, it would give us the extra incentive and extra buzz. From there, who knows?"
Kerr will be hoping that buzz will inspire Arsenal to win that elusive, second European title.
Buy tickets for the Champions League final at chelseafc.com/uefawomensfinal
Five key Arsenal players
Kelly Smith, 34, striker Now in her third spell with Arsenal, following two stints in the US professional league, Smith is the undoubted star of the women's game in the UK. Shortlisted for the Fifa Women's World Player of the Year four times, she is considered by many to have been unlucky in not securing the coveted prize. She is also England's record goalscorer, with more than 100 caps to her name. Hope Powell, the England and Team GB manager who is not one for hyperbole, sings her praises: "Kelly is one of those players who come along only once or twice in a lifetime. In the men's game you'd think of Diego Maradona or Messi, players with a unique talent, and that's what Kelly has."
Stephanie Houghton, 24, defender The former Sunderland player sprang to fame during London 2012 after she scored the winning goal against Brazil in front of a record crowd of more than 70,000 at Wembley. Team GB's top scorer during the Olympic Games, Houghton hit a goal in each of the group games, prompting players to joke that a defender might be on her way to securing the golden boot. Overnight fame it may have seemed, but for Houghton the plaudits were just deserts after two injuries that meant missing the 2007 World Cup in China – where England reached the quarter-finals – and the 2009 European Championship, at which the team finished runner-up to winners Germany. Houghton shares a house with team-mates Jordan Nobbs and Danielle Carter.
Kim Little, 22, midfielder It was almost five years ago, on scoring her first goal for Arsenal in front of a 5,000-strong crowd at the Emirates aged just 17, that the then-manager, Vic Akers, said: "Make a note of this kid, she's going to be a big player." Sure enough, the Scotland and Team GB international has gone on to make quite a name for herself. After holding down a regular first-team place on signing for Arsenal from Hibernian, aged 16, Little established herself as a prolific scorer and was top scorer in the FAWSL last season. At London 2012 she was one of only two non-English players selected for Team GB and made headlines for choosing not to sing God Save the Queen ahead of the opening group game against New Zealand. She went on to manage three assists for the team that reached the quarter-finals before losing to Canada.
Ellen White, 23, striker Came to the nation's attention with an audacious lob for England in a World Cup game against the eventual champions, Japan, in 2011. That goal, which had her team-mates – as well as coach Powell – leaping up from the dugout, did the rounds on YouTube and contributed towards earning the striker the honour of being named England's player of the year in 2011. Tall and strong, White is consistently one of Arsenal's top scorers.
Jordan Nobbs, 20, midfielder Arsenal's player of the season last year made an eye-catching, international senior debut last week when she scored for England against Italy in the Cyprus Cup. The goal confirmed her status as a rising star, but in truth the daughter of the former Hartlepool centre-back Keith Nobbs has been quietly impressing for some years now. The former Sunderland player captained England at youth levels under-15, under-17 and, most significantly, at the Under-19 European Championship in 2009, when she helped England to lift the trophy – scoring in the final against Sweden. Voted FA young player of the year in 2010, she seems ready to transfer that progress on to the senior stage at this summer's Euros, as well as contributing to Arsenal's hunt for four trophies this season.