Less than three weeks since England’s euphoric triumph against Germany at Euro 2022, Keira Walsh returns to her day job on Thursday when Manchester City meet the Kazakh club Tomiris-Turan in the first qualifying round of the Women’s Champions League.
The central midfielder was pivotal to England’s tournament success – her perceptive through‑pass that released Ella Toone to score at Wembley is the most memorable example – and Walsh has had time recently to reflect on the scale of the Lionesses’ accomplishment.
“The first few days it was still a bit surreal,” she tells the Guardian. “But now things have calmed down a bit, you will get a chance to sit back and realize the achievement. When you come out of the tournament, and out of our bubble, [you understand] the magnitude that women’s football is going to grow to now – it is just going to be crazy.”
The post-tournament break was “short, it’s fair to say”, but Walsh is aware of the need for the women’s game to seize the moment: “We had a lot of media stuff, but that’s part and parcel of winning it. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to grow the game through doing that. Hopefully we can keep pushing it.”
Manchester City’s England contingent returned to training last week to prepare for the Champions League qualification mission in Madrid this week, and Walsh says the mood is upbeat as several new signings settle into a much-changed squad.
During the summer, Caroline Weir left for Real Madrid, Lucy Bronze went to Barcelona and Georgia Stanway joined Bayern Munich. There are six new arrivals in Gareth Taylor’s playing group: Laia Aleixandri and Deyna Castellanos came in from Atlético Madrid, Leila Ouahabi from Barcelona, plus Mary Fowler, Kerstin Casparij and the goalkeeper Sandy MacIver.
“Obviously, the Lionesses are buzzing,” Walsh says of the atmosphere in camp. “We’ve got a lot of new players in and we’re in really good spirits, more than ready to go. [The new recruits] are top players and besides that they are good people. In training you can see what they’re about. They want to fit in to our style of play, they all want to get the ball down and make passes. Tactically they are very good and I’m looking forward to playing a competitive game with them.”
City were eliminated from the Champions League in the second qualifying round by Real Madrid last season – a tie Walsh missed through injury – so the competition is a priority both for her and the club. “I didn’t have the chance to play last year so on a personal note, yeah, these two games are massive. On a team level it was disappointing last year – we can’t hide from that – and we definitely want to improve. It’s not just about the three domestic trophies, we want to win the Champions League, and are going to be pushing for it.”
The first round consists of mini‑tournaments of four teams, split into the “League Path” and “Champions Path”. The winners of each of these will progress to a two-legged knockout tie next month, followed by a group stage made up of 16 clubs. (As domestic champions Barcelona, Chelsea, Lyon and Wolfsburg enter at that point.) The quarter-finals and semi-finals, in March and April respectively, will culminate in the final in Eindhoven in June.
But before that, should things run to form in Spain, City will face last season’s nemesis Real Madrid on Sunday with a second-round qualifying tie the prize. Madrid met Sturm of Austria first and may be encouraged by the fact that City have been knocked out of Europe’s top competition by Spanish opposition in the past four seasons.
Elsewhere, Glasgow City face Roma at Petershill Park in League Path Group One (Paris FC and Servette are the other teams in the group). Rangers, meanwhile, travel to Greece to play Ferencvaros in Champions Path Group Two before a potential meeting with PAOK or Swansea. Juventus kick off against Racing Union of Luxembourg.
“A lot of it has been trying to integrate,” Walsh says of City’s pre-season training program. “We are just focused on ourselves and what we can do, we’re more than confident that if we can bring our game, we can get the job done.”
Before getting back down to business, then, has Walsh had a chance to relive any of that historic Euro 2022 success on TV? “I’ve seen a few clips here and there. I’ve not had much time and it’s important to switch off before coming back into the club. I’m not going to lie… I’ve watched my pass a few times from the final.”
Could Taylor’s side finally achieve the European success they crave? Walsh, and her fellow Lionesses at Manchester City, have shown that anything is possible.