‘I always look forward to facing Emma Hayes,’ admits Aston Villa’s Carla Ward ahead of Chelsea clash

Having failed to pick up a point from their first four matches of the 2023/24 Barclays Women’s Super League, Carla Ward’s Aston Villa side prepare to host Chelsea on Saturday – with the Blues unbeaten so far this term and only kept off the top spot by a high-flying Manchester City side with superior goal difference.

‘If you look at November, we’ve got a lot of opportunities to get some points on the board and that’s what we want to focus on. Yes, we start with Chelsea – but I think it’s really important that we go out there with the mentality that we want to win the game,’ explained Ward in her pre-match press conference.

‘I think when we played Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal, it was by far one of our greatest performances. We’re gonna look back at that and look at why. We’ll look forward to it – we always look forward to playing the big sides and there’s nobody bigger than Chelsea at the moment, she continued.

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Questioned on Chelsea’s apparent defensive frailties, Ward insisted that ‘yes, they’ve conceded goals but arguably they’ve got one of the best forward lines. Yes, they’ve conceded opportunities and yes, they’ve conceded goals – but it’s definitely something we’ve had a look at. I was having a look at exactly what time Sam Kerr kicked off yesterday, trying to work that one out but I believe she’ll be back at some point.’

‘No matter who you face in that Chelsea squad, they’ve got an abundance of world-class talent,’ she concluded, ‘they could play any eleven and you know it’s going to be a difficult day.’

But more than anything, Ward is relishing the opportunity to face Emma Hayes – who she cites as an incredible mentor. ‘Listen, she’s given me an awful lot. I’ll be honest, this period I’ve probably heard from her more than I have, which tells you an awful lot. She probably tried to get a few things out of me this morning but got absolutely nothing, so no listen, she’s somebody that guides me, helps me and advises me,’ she said.

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‘She’s been a shoulder, that’s for sure. But for ninety minutes, it’ll be business as usual – we’ll try and mess up their plans and they’ll probably try and do the same. She’s been huge for me, probably not just me – she does a lot of work that goes unnoticed. I always look forward to facing her on the sidelines, that’s for sure.’

The Aston Villa boss insists that, despite a suboptimal start to the season, her side will bounce back with a much-improved performance against the reigning champions on Saturday. ‘We’ve analysed our first four games and then looking back at what made us really successful last season, we’ve made a few tweaks,’ she explained, ‘we’re a group that wants to improve, we’ll never stop working and I believe we’re in a good place, regardless of four defeats.’

‘Morale’s been really high. We’ve only had a small group in and they’ve been excellent but the girls have come back in high spirits. The one thing I’ve always said about this group is they’re an honest group, they’re a hard-working group and I think those opening four games will have hurt them. Look, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’ll see a reaction from the group this weekend. So honestly, the morale is really good. Confidence is high to kickstart what we think will be a positive November.’

Following defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, Ward claimed that the international break would be coming at the wrong time for her Villa side – but upon reflection, she now sees the positives of an enforced ten-day break.

‘After the Tottenham game, I was asked if the international break came at the right time. I said no, but actually on reflection, I would say yes. It really allows you to unpick the bones out of where you were at in the summer, where we’re at now – what needs to be tweaked?’

Lucy Parker sustained an injury while on international duty, and Ward added that ‘she’s had a scan, been assessed but she definitely won’t be available this weekend.’

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Kenza Dali’s return to the side isn’t yet set in stone either, with the Villa boss explaining that the midfielder ‘is back on the grass. We’re still unsure if she’ll definitely be available this weekend but she’s closing in on a return which is massive for us because like I said, we’ve got some really big games coming up. This weekend might be too soon, we’re not sure, but we’ll make that decision in the next couple of days.’

Fortunately though, Aston Villa will welcome back Kirsty Hanson – with the Scottish international having now served her three-game suspension for a straight red card offence on the opening day against Manchester United. ‘I think the impact she had with us last season was huge, as it was with Kenza. They’ve been huge misses for us but having her back this weekend will be huge,’ Ward explained.