JAPAN-BOUND ALUKO PREVIEWS SPECIAL TRIP
Chelsea Ladies fly out to Japan today (Saturday) with the intention of returning home with silverware.
Teams from around the world will descend on Okayama, Kagoshima and Tokyo to participate in the second edition of the International Women's Club Championship, with Chelsea chosen to represent Europe in a competition also featuring sides from Japan, Chile and Australia.
Chelsea Ladies enter at the semi-final stage on Wednesday, where they will play either the Australian champions Sydney FC, or the Japanese league runners-up MTV Beleza. The winners of that game will then head to Tokyo for next Sunday's final, while the losers will have a third/fourth place play-off in Kagoshima on Saturday.
Ahead of the trip Eniola Aluko, the Chelsea Ladies and England striker, has been speaking to the official Chelsea website about her excitement on visiting a new country, how different team-mates might benefit from the experience, and what role she hopes to play in the coming weeks and months.
Aluko, a veteran of over 70 England appearances that have taken in two World Cups, three European Championships and an Olympic Games, as well as a three-year stint playing in the United States, can't hide her delight when she considers the week ahead.
'I'm really looking forward to it,' the 26-year-old enthused.
'Japan has always been one of the places I've dreamed of going to. As the saying goes, you've not really been anywhere until you've been to Japan! I don't think it's an easy place to just say you want to go to, so for football to take me there is just amazing, particularly with Chelsea.
'Usually when you speak to people about their own country they're a bit derogatory but I have a few Japanese friends and they all say such great things about their country. The culture is incredible, the food is incredible and the attention to detail in everything they do is incredible. I'm just so excited.'
For one team-mate in particular, the trip will be very special.
'I'm fascinated to see Yuki Ogimi out there. She's a great professional and someone that a lot of Japanese people obviously like and look up to. I'll be interesting to see the Japanese market and how they love football.
'Yuki has been a breath of fresh air to the team. Her joining us was very exciting for everyone. It's obviously going to be a great trip for her and it's something that I think is going to be a great experience for everybody that is going.'
Ogimi is one of a number of players that have joined Chelsea Ladies in 2013, with two England internationals, Laura Bassett and Rachel Williams, both added to the squad in recent weeks. As a former team-mate of Williams's at Birmingham, Aluko is well-positioned to assess her fellow striker's credentials.
'Rachel is one of a kind,' she said.
'She's got a heart of gold but a body of steel. She is such a powerhouse, which is rare in the women's game. She's a goalscorer and she's great in the air.
'Sometimes we lack that winning mentality and that grit, but Rachel would put her head through a wall for the team so we've added something to the squad that we didn't have. It'll be really exciting to play with her again.'
For Aluko, a trip to a land far away to play football will not be a new experience, given that the striker has already played professionally in the United States and at the 2007 World Cup in China. For many of her colleagues at Chelsea, though, unchartered territory will be entered. She considers how she might be able to help the younger members of the travelling party.
'I'm always looking at bettering myself to be honest. I don't put myself up there and say I've made it, but I suppose it's really nice to say I've done so much that I can help other people. Maybe I can see when somebody is struggling and help them out a bit.
'Some of the young players at Chelsea are amazing players and have very bright futures ahead of them. Sometimes they show me up in training! It's going to be great for the likes of Rosella (Ayane), Jodie (Brett) and Drew (Spence), at the age of 20, to go to Japan to play football. Football gives you so much, and it's a real honour to be going.'
The 2013 season didn't go as well as hoped for the Chelsea Ladies, with a seventh-place finish in the FA Women's Super League representing a disappointing return. Aluko is keen to put that behind her ahead of both the upcoming tournament in Japan and the return of league action next year.
'We didn't reach the expectations we needed to last year. We lost far too many games,' Aluko reflected.
'The last thing you can do when you have a bad season is dwell on it. We need to really quickly put it behind us and remember what it felt like.
'Chelsea have made wholesale changes to the squad which is what they needed to do, and that's encouraging. The coaching staff have recognised what we needed and what we were missing and they've added to it.
'I'm really encouraged. I'm going to use the bad experiences, turn it into good energy, and do well in Japan and next season.'
Over the next week, Aluko and her team-mates have the ideal platform from which to start creating that good energy. The global stage that awaits the Chelsea Ladies will present the fresh challenge of playing teams from around the world, while the week-long trip will provide plenty of team-bonding opportunities for the travelling party. Japan beckons.
The second part of our exclusive interview with Eniola Aluko will be on the official Chelsea website early next week. Starting tomorrow, we'll also have a daily blog from Japan, with all the news and highlights of how the Ladies are getting on in the Far East.