Within a whisker of a place in last season's UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-finals, Rayo Vallecano de Madrid have dusted themselves down and are ready to go again.
The Spanish champions begin their latest European campaign on Thursday when they travel to Slovenia to begin a qualifying round mini-tournament involving hosts ŽNK Krka, Irish side Peamount United and Estonia's Pärnu FC. Only top spot in the section will guarantee a place in the round of 32 alongside the likes of Arsenal LFC, their last-gasp conquerors in the 2010/11 round of 16.
Rayo coach José Rodríguez was in optimistic mood when UEFA.com caught up with him. "We're facing this challenge full of hope and eagerness," he said. "We are, of course, aware that there are teams better than us and therefore haven't set the objective of winning the trophy or even getting close to doing so. What we do want to do, however, is to give everything we have in every game and to try to get as far as we can."
Still smarting from that last-minute goal Katie Chapman that made it 4-3 on aggregate for Arsenal, Rodríguez admitted it was hard to bounce back. "It was such a comedown," he said. "Rayo hadn't won a single game in the competition until last year. The players worked so hard but that goal really killed us. We were playing the better football in London and then suddenly it started raining and their physical superiority told. There are times in football when playing well doesn't always suffice."
Olympique Lyonnais and 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam were the eventual finalists – a repeat of the 2010 showpiece – and Rodríguez says they have set the standard others must now seek to match. "Those teams are a step above the rest," he said. "We would class ourselves among a group of teams just behind them.
"We try to follow the system laid down by the Spanish national team and FC Barcelona. Before it was said there are two ways of playing: with a nice football style or playing to win. Now what is being shown is that you can play well and win. Almost every Spanish coach is following that formula these days."
With the prospect of a new European season drawing ever closer, Rodríguez reiterated the belief that his squad can cause problems for future opponents. "I'm hoping this will be a big year for our full-back Ana María Catalá, Paloma Lázaro in attack – she has a real sense for goal – and Alba Mellado," he said.
"They are the youngest I have at my disposal and I hope they can consolidate their place as Primera División players. After that we have our 'veterans', who always help us out. We've lost a player here and there but those who have stuck with us are extremely committed and I'm very happy with them." Such conviction will soon be put to the test.
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