Leading Melbourne Victory into the first iteration of the AFC Women’s Club Championship, Head Coach Jeff Hopkins was well aware of the potential benefits his side could reap – as well as the possible pratfalls.
Given the honour of representing the W-League by virtue of their 2018/19 premiership, Victory was joined by Chinese side Jiangsu Suning, Japanese club Nippon TV Beleza and Koreans Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels at the tournament, held over five days in the Korean city of Yongin.
Opening their campaign with a 4-0 loss to Incheon on Tuesday evening, Hopkins’ side staged a valiant rear-guard to hold off a furiously finishing Jiangsu and record a 1-1 draw on Thursday evening - Grace Maher making history as the W-League’s first scorer at the tournament.
Their campaign concluded with a 5-0 defeat to high-powered Nippon on Saturday afternoon.
“We feel really honoured to be here but, also, to be the first,” Hopkins told The Women’s Game from Korea ahead of the Nippon fixture.
“We almost feel a little bit of responsibility that we need to represent Australia, represent our league as best we can.
"I think there’s, for me as a coach and our coaching staff, there’s maybe a bit of pressure on us that we need to show we are here to represent but also that we’re giving value as well.
“It’s something that we really thought about before we came out, we want to showcase our club, we want to showcase our league and there’s a responsibility.
“We don’t want to let anyone down.
Of course, Victory's jam-packed opening to the season - the AFC Women's Club Championship is taking place in their bye week - carries great opportunities and dangers for Victory.
As it always is in the W-League, the need to properly account for player health – especially for players that have arrived in Australia after playing overseas – through effective load management and avoidance of injuries is paramount.
There is also the danger of what a series of defeats could do to the team’s mindset and form ahead of what looms as one of the most competitive domestic seasons in recent years.
Nonetheless, with the short pre-seasons afforded to Australian clubs, the opportunity to jet off to an international tournament early in the season offers Victory the chance to build and strengthen team cohesion in a manner unavailable to any of their Australian-based rivals.
“There’s pros and cons really,” said Victory’s coach.
“It’s tough to come here and play. The quality of teams that we’re playing against, we’ve very little preparation between games and very little rest between games.
“On the other side of things, we’re away for a week – eight, nine days – and we’re travelling together every day. The team-building element is very good, I think that side of things has been great.
“The girls have been really good, they’re getting on well, they’re learning more about each other away from the football side of things which I think is always important. That kind of thing will help moving forward into the season.
"One of our goals is just to maybe be a little more flexible and try a few things out over here that we might not do so much back in Australia, but they’re things that we may think about doing in parts of games or against certain teams so it’s good to experiment a little bit.
“Got to say, [there is] a bit of worry as well. If you pick up one or two injuries by maybe being a bit too aggressive with how much time you give players or getting a bit carried away…
“We’ve got to be careful and be aware that it’s very early in the season now and that an injury to one or two key players can really affect us and hurt us.”
The need to manage his side through the rapid run of games has seen Hopkins experiment with positioning and hand extended minutes to a number of squad players in Korea.
Chief amongst the beneficiaries of this plan has been the younger players in Victory’s squad.
“I think they’ll definitely really benefit,” Hopkins said of the younger players in his squad such as 16-year-olds Alana Jancevski and Paige Zois, 18-year-old Polly Doran, 20-year-olds Maher and Melina Ayres and 21-year-old NPLW star Emma Robers.
“We gave Alana Jancevski and Paige Zois debuts and Polly Doran has come in already and done well for us through pre-season and the season but again, this is a step-up. These are players that were playing in the NPLW six-months ago and they’re playing against some of the best players in the world, the best players in Asia for sure.
“Hopefully, it’s going to fast track them along the line to become better W-League players quicker.
“Just them being away with the group, being away with the international players and the professionals in a professional environment is definitely going to help them and hopefully it inspires them just to keep going.
“I think they’re learning a lot and I guess what’s impressed me is the way they do take things on board, just talking to some of the young girls and listening to the questions they’re asking. Just some of the knowledge they’re showing they have is very pleasing to see."