KELLY SMITH: Arsenal Ladies striker speaks exclusively to Ham&High
by Jem Maidment FOR a side who recently chalked up their 100th consecutive Premier League game without defeat, there remains an air of despondency around Arsenal s outstanding ladies side. Losing heavily, 6-0 at Swedish side Umea IK in the last 16 of the Uefa Women s Cup
FOR a side who recently chalked up their 100th consecutive Premier League game without defeat, there remains an air of despondency around Arsenal's outstanding ladies side.
Losing heavily, 6-0 at Swedish side Umea IK in the last 16 of the Uefa Women's Cup, was a hammer blow for a squad which won the competition - beating the same opponents - just 18 months ago.
"It was an opportunity wasted," star striker Kelly Smith, the outstanding English player of her generation and Arsenal's talismanic figure, admitted to Ham&High Sport.
"None of us played well on the night, I was very low... we were all very low."
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As well she - and they - might have been.
The Gunners had beaten Umea 3-2 in the first leg at Boreham Wood - "we should have had four or five" - and Smith herself was uncharacteristically guilty of profligacy in front of goal, lobbing wide when clean through in the final seconds.
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Umea got to work quickly in temperatures of minus four degrees for the return in north-eastern Sweden, scoring their opener after just 14 seconds before running riot.
"We went there to win the game but they took their opportunities ruthlessly," adds Smith, who missed that famous win in the final back in 2007 through suspension.
"The first half, on balance of play, was actually pretty even. We even had two or three good chances.
"But they scored at vital times; in the first and last minutes of the first half and again immediately after the restart.
"When their third went in we just knew... well, it was hard to take. If we'd got a couple more in the first leg maybe it would have been different."
Smith is an extraordinary figure in the game. Generally recognised as one of the best players in the world, the Watford-born star is a certainty for selection in any World XI.
Another player in that elite band, Brazilian Marta, scored four for Umea in that crushing loss. "She was amazing, but I fancy Lyon to go on and win the competition. Umea rely on Marta, which is understandable, but Lyon are more of a complete team," says Smith, who witnessed first-hand Lyon's quality as part of the Arsenal side who lost 3-0 in France in a group game earlier this season.
Domestically, however, Arsenal's dominance is such that the Women's Premier League is almost a given for manager Vic Akers' all-conquering side.
Under Akers they have won 10 titles, including the last five.
With vastly inferior opponents on these shores, the importance of playing top quality opposition from the continent - most of whom are professional, unlike the situation in England - becomes more acute.
"We want to play in competitive games every week, not just occasionally," laments Smith, who was awarded an MBE earlier this year.
"I think the fact we play a lot of poor sides in England is a disadvantage for us in Europe because maybe we are not always prepared well enough, through no real fault of our own.
"It's not fun beating teams by six or seven goals regularly. Chelsea and Everton are our main rivals and they are improving, but generally we don't have to play well to win Premier Leaugue games.
"Something has to change because we have set the benchmark but others are now hitting our heights. It can be very hard to motivate ourselves sometimes, to lift ourselves."
But a routine win over Leeds last month saw Arsenal's unbeaten run hit three figures, a feat she remains proud of.
"Of course we're all proud of it - now we want to stretch that record. We want to go unbeaten for as long as possible."
Plans are well in advance for a major overhaul of the women's domestic game, with a new, slimmed-down summer league planned for 2010 with a hardcore of elite clubs.
"It would be a good thing," she says, "the facilities would be better, there would, in theory, be better resources.
"Something has to change in this country and hopefully this could be the answer."
Whether Smith is around remains to be seen. Vic Akers steps down from the Arsenal job at the end of the season after 22 years and Smith, herself, is mulling over a tempting offer from America.
"I've been drafted to Boston for the start of a new league over in the U.S next summer," says the 30-year-old, who spent seven years in America before moving to Arsenal in 2004.
"Basically, I have held talks with them but I have a lot of thinking to do.
"If I went there it would be for six months which would suit me as I don't want to live back there permanently - I want to be back home in England.
"I haven't even sat down with my family properly yet, which is something I must do, of course.
"It will be a great league, that's for sure, with some of the best US internationals playing in it, which means the standard would be very good.
"Financially it has to be right for me to play professionally over there, because I'd be giving up a lot here at Arsenal.
"Our facilites at London Colney are fabulous, we are treated very well by the club and very much part of the set-up. They (the club) respect us.
"All I can say as regards to America is that I hope to make my decision soon, maybe even in the next couple of weeks."
And she also has her eye on next summer's European championships in Finland.
England drew 2-2 in Spain last month to qualify, with Smith scoring. After netting four times in England's march to the World Cup quarter finals last summer, she is hoping for more international success as the next step in her glittering career.
"It's important that we, as a nation, qualify for the big tournaments and we have started to do that. We surprised some people by getting to the last eight of the World Cup in China - we now have to push on.
"There is a lot of preparation and we will go to a training camp. Our manager says 2009 to 2011 should be the time that we peak as a team.
"We want to work more on our togetherness and our team play in the coming months. It's all very professional and we can't wait to get started - let's see what we can do."
But not before another league title for Arsenal, of course...