VfL Wolfsburg's Nadine Kessler admits it has been much tougher being defending champions this year ahead of a tie against FC Barcelona she knows is a "great challenge".
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The year 2013 was fairly memorable for VfL Wolfsburg: having never won a major trophy, they capped a German double with victory against Olympique Lyonnais in the UEFA Women's Champions League final at Stamford Bridge.
At the heart of that success was captain Nadine Kessler, whose partnership in midfield with Lena Goessling was also the bedrock for Germany's UEFA Women's EURO 2013 triumph. On Sunday, Wolfsburg welcome FC Barcelona for the first leg of their quarter-final having performed brilliantly in the round of 32 and 16, but off the back of some mixed results since the winter break, including a loss to FC Bayern München. Kessler spoke to UEFA.com about the Barcelona tie and the challenge of being defending European champions.
UEFA.com: What do you think of Barcelona?
Nadine Kessler: Barcelona have improved a lot. We've already played some matches against Barcelona and we've been able to follow their development over the last few years. Last summer we played them in a tournament in Calais [winning 2-0] and they have developed their playing style – they are trying to assimilate the football style that their men's team play. They are technically very strong, so it will be a great challenge for us.
UEFA.com: Is it important for women's football in general that big men's clubs like Wolfsburg and Barcelona invest in the game?
Kessler: I think so, yes. It is good that women's football is appreciated by such big clubs in men's football, and that women's football is being promoted and supported. We have been benefiting from that here at Wolfsburg.
UEFA.com: Last season you were the hunters and now you are the hunted. Is that a new role you have to get used to?
Kessler: This season has certainly been more difficult, we've seen that in the domestic league where we haven't been as dominant as we were before, including recently losing against Bayern. So we have been having some issues with getting used to the pressure and the challenges, but we are aware of that. We know what our weaknesses are and we won't give up. It has been a difficult year, as predicted, but that's how it is in sport – not every year is like the previous one.
UEFA.com: Is it more difficult to defend the European title, compared with winning it for the first time?
Kessler: Yes, absolutely. We were the underdogs then. Lyon went there as clear favourites, having been unbeaten up to then. Nobody really reckoned on us. It was definitely more comfortable to go into the final like that.
UEFA.com: If you overcome Barcelona you could play Potsdam in the semi-finals. Would that be something special?
Kessler: First of all, it would be a great challenge with two German teams facing each other. Then, for me personally, it would of course be something special after my two years in Potsdam. But we shouldn't forget that we also have our league match against Turbine Potsdam at around the same time. So we would be facing them three times in a row, and that would be a hard fight – and a very exciting duel, I think.
UEFA.com: Let's talk about last year's final win at Stamford Bridge. Is that still something you think about?
Kessler: It is certainly something that stays in your memory and motivates you. It had an incredibly important meaning for us, as it seemed to be an impossible mission beforehand. We would like to repeat that and get to the final again, because it is just a fantastic competition and it was an unforgettable experience for us.
UEFA.com: Why do you and midfield partner Lena Goessling work so well together for club and country?
Kessler: Lena and I have been playing together for the last three years – we have played so many matches together and I think we just complement each other very well. We are a good mix in our position, and I think that especially in midfield it is important that you can rely on your team-mates and anticipate what they are going to do. I think we've found that mix.
UEFA.com: Your coach Ralf Kellermann has just extended his contract until 2017. Can you tell us how he has influenced the team?
Kessler: He really lives what he does. We can feel that every day. He wants to push us forward in all aspects, especially in our playing style. He really focuses on every detail and strives for perfection. But also off the pitch he is very attentive and thoughtful. He always wants the best, and I think that mix makes him a very good coach.