With the return of Women’s football fast approaching, Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes gave an update on the Blues’ pre-season preparations and emphasised how we must raise our level if we are to build on last year’s achievements.

In just over a fortnight, the Blues begin our 2020/21 campaign at Wembley Stadium as we compete against Manchester City in the first FA Women’s Community Shield since 2008.

Hayes is looking forward to the curtain-raiser and is pleased with her team’s preparations ahead of the mouth-watering clash.

‘It’s been fantastic to have the whole squad together from the very start and work on things with the new players,’ says Hayes as we catch up with her at Cobham. ‘It was a welcome break for everyone but I’m really pleased with the way the team came back in, which has allowed us to build on our achievements from last year.

‘We have to remember that it’s so much harder when you’re the winning team so it’s crucial that the players understand that if they want to sustain the level, they are going to have to find something else. That’s the challenge I’m putting forward to them every day.

‘The message to the players is that you need to put yourself in the best possible position to compete to play in that game because with the funds Man City have spent over the summer they are showing why they are one of the best teams in the world.’

The Blues kick-start our Women’s Super League title defence as we travel to Manchester United on Sunday 6 September, with our second league fixture at home to Bristol City on Sunday 13 September, and Hayes is anticipating another tough campaign ahead.

‘I think everything will be extremely difficult this season,’ Hayes admits. ‘Winning is very tough when you look at the quality of the opposition, especially when you look at how well teams have strengthened their squads.

‘I’ve always said that winning successive titles is extremely challenging and even more so this year with the quality that is coming to this league. I think it will be a five or six-horse race, to be honest with you.’

Over the course of the summer, Hayes has bolstered her own squad with the signings of midfielders Melanie Leupolz, Niamh Charles and Jessie Fleming and the boss reveals how the trio are settling into life at Chelsea.

‘They're a great bunch,' she notes. 'Melly Leupolz has shown us her experience and her class. She speaks English so she’s really settled in well with the group and I think she is a player who will be really popular with our fans.

‘Niamh Charles, I think she’s a little fighter. Every day she’s adapting to the levels and expectations and she’s demonstrated why we signed her.

‘Jessie Fleming has got really wonderful feet and has the ability to unlock things. She’s adapting to a physical environment in England but they’ve all settled in very well.'

Fran Kirby, who has been absent from the squad since November due to a serious medical condition called pericarditis – an illness which causes inflammation to the fluid-filled sac around the heart – has now made a full recovery and Hayes explains how the forward is getting on in training.

‘Fran is like a new signing,' she reports with great excitment. 'She’s worked so hard in this period to get the fundamentals right and I’m excited that she’s back with the group.

‘She’s bringing all those qualities we know she has and is just showing to everybody why she’s such a top, top player.’

The start of the season will, of course, be played behind closed doors until it is safe for fans to return to stadiums. The FA Women’s Community Shield will be broadcast live on BBC One and the BBC iPlayer, while our opening WSL fixtures will be available on the FA Player. Hayes understands the measures football is having to take but hopes we will be reunited with our fans soon. In the meantime, she is encouraging the fans to support the team from home if they can.

‘Playing in front of a crowd is why we do what we do but we can only control what we can and it’s not possible for us to play in front of our fans right now,' she explains. ‘Let’s just hope that the return of the fans to stadiums happens sooner rather than later because we are a much stronger force together.

‘We miss you,' she adds in a direct message to the Chelsea Women supporters. 'We look forward to seeing you. Stay patient, be safe and when the time is right, I’m sure we will be back together again.'

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