Chelsea Ladies are ready to dominate English women's football again in 2016
As Guus Hiddink prepares to navigate the final weeks of his second interim spell at Stamford Bridge and see out a season beyond redemption, another Chelsea team are set to embark on a far more promising title defence.
Chelsea Ladies head into the new campaign as the dominant force in English women's football. In October, they clinched a maiden Women's Super League crown with 10 victories and just two defeats from 14 matches, scoring more goals (30) and conceding fewer (10) than any of their rivals. By then, glory had also been achieved in the first-ever FA Women's Cup final to be played at Wembley where, in front of a record crowd of 30,710, a scrappy first-half goal from South Korean superstar Ji So-Yun saw the Blues edge out a spirited but overmatched Notts County.
"A toe punt!" is the teasing description offered by vice-captain Gilly Flaherty to a smiling Ji when the subject of her big moment is raised. "It was really special to play at Wembley in front of so many fans and a really special moment for me to score the goal," the South Korean adds via a translator. "I feel like a lot more fans have learned what kind of club the Chelsea Ladies are."
Four key members of the team -- playmaker Ji, centre-back Flaherty, winger Gemma Davison and goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl -- spoke to ESPN FC at the Chelsea Health Club and Spa, located metres from Stamford Bridge's East Stand. They're hard at work preparing for Sunday's FA Women's Cup fifth round clash with Doncaster Rovers Belles and have just completed a workout sponsored by Technogym, Chelsea's official fitness equipment partner.
"We eased into it, gradually building our fitness levels up," Davison says of a preseason schedule that began in the final week of January and included a team building day at an ex-army barracks in Hampshire. "Everything's pretty well timed out in terms of what we do in every session. We signed some new players so it was about integrating them as well."
Unlike Jose Mourinho, Chelsea Ladies boss Emma Hayes cannot claim to have been denied significant reinforcements to her squad of champions. England centurion Karen Carney is the marquee arrival from Birmingham City but Beth England, scorer of 14 goals as Doncaster won promotion from WSL 2 in 2015, will add further quality to Chelsea's already intimidating array of attacking options. Promising midfielder Jade Bailey has been poached from Arsenal while former Birmingham City No.1 goalkeeper Becky Spencer will compete with Lindahl for a starting spot next season.
"It's something you have to expect if you want to be in a winning team," Lindahl insists, exuding a quiet confidence. "People want to be in this squad and the better players we can bring in, the better for the team. You just have to accept the challenge and rise to it. I've always said that I want to be the best goalkeeper in the world, so I like the competition between myself and Becky."
One player almost certain to remain among the first names on the team sheet is Ji. Hailed by Hayes as "one of the best midfielders in the world" when she joined Chelsea Ladies from Japanese giants INAC Kobe Leonessa in January 2014, the South Korean immediately lived up to her lofty billing, inspiring the Blues to within goal difference of the WSL title in her debut season and earning the PFA Women's Player of the Year award as her team clinched the trophy in 2015.
Despite her lack of confidence with the language in interviews, the light-hearted Ji has settled well into English life. Sharing a house in Cobham with teammates Hannah Blundell, Ana Borges and new signing England helps, though she freely admits she had her doubts about Chelsea on arrival.
"My first impressions weren't that good," she adds. "I was part of a very successful team in Japan and they have a bigger league, so when I first came here -- the facilities, the places we were playing, the number of fans -- made me quite worried to be honest. But it's good that the club is growing now, and I'm a part of it."
A mention of Ji's popular moniker "the Korean Messi" prompts an exasperated roll of the eyes from the woman herself, but Flaherty is under no illusions about the level of her teammate's talent. "It's massive for us to be able to attract players like Ji and she's had some special moments for us," the England international insists. "She's got awards and she's fully deserved them. A lot of us will be grateful at the end of our careers to say that we've played with someone like Ji. I think we get the best out of her and she gets the best out of the players around her."
Many in the women's game interpret the presence of Ji and other international stars in the WSL as further evidence of the sport's encouraging growth in England, andd 2015 was certainly a big year. Mark Sampson's Lionesses captivated the nation with their thrilling run to the World Cup semifinal in Canada while, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, WSL 1 matches averaged more than 1,000 spectators for the first time despite invariably taking place on weeknights in smaller, less glamorous stadiums.
Davison, a WSL champion with Liverpool in 2014 prior to joining Chelsea, believes the Blues have timed their rise to the top perfectly and insists they have no intention of letting their crown slip any time soon.
"We know everyone else wants to beat us but we won't change our mindset from last year," she says. "We're going to try and win everything we're in -- the WSL, the FA Cup, the Continental Cup, the Champions League. We wouldn't all be here if we didn't want to pick up trophies.
"That's what we want to be as a club. Rival-wise we're looking at Arsenal being one, Man City being another, but we're focusing on ourselves. We're the ones defending our title and we're going to do what we need to do."