Cardiff Met LFC return to the UEFA Women's Champions League this season, determined to learn from the lessons of their debut experience in 2012/13.
Connected to Cardiff Metropolitan University in the Welsh capital, they fell to qualifying round defeats against WFC SFK 2000 Sarajevo, Peamount United and ASA Tel-Aviv University SC two years ago, and the Israeli team are their opponents in Group 8 on Saturday before games against R. Standard de Liège and Portuguese hosts Clube Atlético Ouriense. Manager Dr Kerry Harris and captain Hannah Billingham, two veterans of the previous campaign, believe that experience will help them this time.
"We learnt so much out in Sarajevo," Harris told UEFA.com. "Not just from a performance sense, but about how we managed ourselves, our recovery and all the things that go on off the pitch. We didn't really know what to expect, and the players didn't know what to expect.
"We drilled it into them about the European game and the way they like to play, but until they went out there and experienced it first hand, it didn't count for anything. We have made considerable changes as a result and we have tightened things up, not just from a performance point of view, but also in terms of our strength and conditioning."
The sentiments were echoed by Billingham, who skippered Cardiff Met to a domestic treble last season. "It was a steep learning curve and a bit of shock once we got out there," the midfielder said. "I don't think anyone was prepared for it, but we will be a lot better prepared this time. We've had some friendlies against men's teams to experience opponents with a bit more strength and speed than we are used to, and to really challenge and prepare ourselves. The friendlies have been a bit of a culture shock, but we did quite well and it was a good experience for us."
Preparation is the key, as UEFA.com was granted exclusive access to one of the eight weekly training sessions that are serving to ensure they leave nothing to chance. "The team spirit is great," added Billingham. "We've had a lot of training sessions, working on strength and conditioning as well as the technical side of things. It's been pretty intense, but everyone's happy and we're enjoying it."
Harris explained: "We have researched our opponents as much as we can on the internet. We didn't get an awful lot though and we certainly would like to get a lot more insight. But we are trying not to focus on them too much, and instead focus on the controllable, such as what we can do on the field to influence the game. That's why we have pitched our friendlies so high. Whoever we play, we know the quality is going to be there, and the weather conditions are going to be tough."
Billingham is just relishing the chance to represent Wales on the European stage: "It's unbelievable. It's a great honour for me as captain and I'm really proud of the girls. Our team spirit is great and we're a lively bunch. We're good as a whole really. The stadiums in Portugal are huge too and we're incredibly excited about that!"
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