Katie Zelem sets sights on Women’s Champions League with Manchester United

Katie Zelem has already set her sights on Champions League qualification next season as Manchester United attempt to upset the established order in the Women’s Super League.

United finished fourth for the second successive season after a 4-2 final-day defeat at Chelsea on Sunday saw the Blues claim a hat-trick of league titles ahead of Arsenal and Manchester City, who staged a late-season fightback to edge their derby rivals out of third place.

Skipper Zelem told the PA news agency: “Chelsea and Arsenal have been around in the Super League for years – this is our third season. Sometimes people forget that because of the name Manchester United.

“I think, to be honest, we’ve done phenomenally to finish fourth two years in a row, and we know next year is when we want to be pushing on and starting to get into the Champions League places.

“It’s about attracting a little bit more experience, people who have been involved, been in and around the Champions League and we’ve got a really good side.”

Zelem played her junior football at United, but because they had no senior side, had to leave as a 17-year-old in the search for first-team football, continuing her education at Liverpool and briefly Juventus.

However, she returned to play her part in the Women’s Championship title campaign in 2018-19 and has captained the team as they have established themselves in the upper reaches of the top division with a squad now packed with international players.

The 26-year-old said with a smile: “Before, we only used to have three people going away internationally; now, we’ve only got three left.”

Zelem, like club-mates Mary Earps, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, will hope to spend the summer on England duty with Sarina Wiegman’s squad, who are among the favourites to lift the Euro 2022 title on home soil, although she is well aware of the challenge ahead.

The midfielder said: “It’s going to be difficult – we’ve got some great other teams. You can see Spain coming through and how many exciting players they’ve got.

“Obviously winning it is always the aim, but some things are much easier said than done.”

England Women will hope for the same sort of backing which helped to propel the men to the final of last summer’s delayed Euro 2020 finals after some eye-catching domestic attendances.

United beat Everton in front of a record WSL turnout of 20,241 at Old Trafford in March, while fourth-tier Newcastle were watched by 22,134 spectators at St James’ Park earlier this month.

Zelem said: “I don’t know anybody at Newcastle, I’m not affiliated with the club or anything, but I’m just so proud to see what they’ve achieved.

“There’s definitely the appetite there when people know they can go to Old Trafford, go and watch Newcastle, wherever it may be. If it’s there, people definitely want to watch.”

Zelem’s comments came as she prepares to take part in a Panel of Pioneers along with flat jockey Hollie Doyle and Olympic gold medal-winning curler Eve Muirhead at a new-look Ladies Day at Newbury Races on Saturday.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates on Minella Times after winning the 2021 Randox Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

The trio will talk to racegoers about their respective sporting journeys during the Lockinge Day event, which features the Group One Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes and also commentator Dani Jackson, the first female commentator on a UK racecourse for more than a decade.

Zelem, who has also been inspired by the success of Rachael Blackmore, the first female jockey to win the Grand National, said: “I don’t think growing up I had a lot of female role models, so it’s amazing to have the likes of Rachael Blackmore and people in their own sports that little girls can look up to and see.

“When I see other women succeeding in sport, it’s like a win for everyone.”

There is love in Sharing