One of my favourite things since starting LFC Women Blog back in 2013 has been following and supporting Reds internationally; from World Cups and Euros to friendlies and tournament qualifiers.
When Liverpool signed Belgian international Yana Daniels last month, the winger spoke in her first interview of how Belgium had a huge couple of qualifiers coming up as they hoped to qualify for a play off place for the World Cup in France next summer. After seeing one of these games was against Italy, a team with several players I enjoy watching, I was sold.
After harassing several friends to come with me, just fellow Liverpool supporter Deb decided to come along and join me for the trip and after booking to stay a couple of nights in Brussels first – with plans for beer tasting and sightseeing – we booked to stay in Leuven on the night of the match.
Leuven is a small city to the east of Brussels, a 20-minute train journey away, and in travelling to Leuven you cross the border into the Flemish region of Belgium. Having grown up with my cycling-mad Dad travelling to Flanders once a year (he loves the country and that specific region for the people – and the beers!) I was looking forward to spending even just a short time there.
Upon arrival in the town centre there were several impressively looming gothic-looking buildings, all bearing the yellow and black flag of the Flemish region, and the detail in the design of them astounding – you could stand there for hours and still see new parts.
Having been advised by a friend who had travelled there for the England game a couple of years back that there was a street with ‘around 30 bars either side’, we quickly set out for some lunch and a couple of Belgian beers ahead of the 5:30pm kick-off.
In one of the many, many bars on this street was a bartender who spotted my Liverpool jacket and we had a great conversation about the Reds. He was that big a supporter that when the men’s team reached the Champions League final in May he flew across to Liverpool to watch the game in the city!
The street in itself was wholly impressive – think an elongated Concert Square without all the things that make Concert Square, Concert Square. Small pubs and bars lined either side of the wide street with seating available outside at each and stretching into the middle. Catching up with Yana after the match, she told us that having gone to University in Leuven this was a place she was well acquainted with!
Onto the match then and having originally planned on getting a bus to the game, we had quickly realised following a few hours of exploring that Leuven wasn’t that big and from where we were sat it would take just a 15 minute walk.
The closer you got to the stadium, the more Belgium shirts began to appear. With over an hour to go until kick off a healthy sized crowd had begun to build and there were groups of supporters in the pubs dotted on the walk to the ground.
After picking up our tickets and heading to our seats – brilliantly placed on the half way line – there was a little bit of disappointment as the team sheet showed Yana as starting from the bench. The Reds number 11 had played 45 minutes last week in the victory over Romania but here was named amongst the substitutes.
In the Italian side there was no Martina Rosucci – a favourite of mine – as Juventus announced yesterday morning that the midfielder has suffered yet another ACL injury and will be undergoing further surgery. There was however several of the Brescia side that Liverpool faced three years ago in the Champions League including Barbara Bonansea, Cristina Girelli and Elena Linari.
Italy had a small pocket of travelling support behind one of the goals – probably around two dozen who had adorned their stand with Italian flags and colours. Across the rest of the stadium was an array of red, yellow and black.
With the Italians already qualified Belgium needed to win for the chance to play in the play offs – a two rounded competition between four teams of whom only one will go to France next summer.
There was a rifling start to the game as Belgium tested Italy’s back three, finding a weakness on the right side of the defence and probing from there.
Six minutes in and Belgium took the lead through PSG’s impressive 19-year-old forward Davinia Vanmechelen who escaped her marker to smash the ball home at the edge of the 6-yard box.
Vanmechelen almost doubled her tally a couple of minutes later but it would be the Italians who found the back of the net first.
Davina Philtjens, who plays her club football in Italy, was adjudged to have fouled in the area and Girelli dutifully stood up to convert from the penalty spot. Italy hadn’t took their foot off the pedal despite already having their place in France confirmed.
The Italian equaliser provided an opportunity for Girelli and her team mates to pay tribute to the injured Rosucci – they raced to the bench and celebrated the goal by holding up her number eight shirt. Rosucci made a comeback for last summer’s European Championships so hopefully all goes well with her surgery and recovery and she’ll be back for the World Cup next year.
Ten minutes before half time came the deciding goal in the fixture as Vanmechelen put Belgium back ahead as Italy failed to clear their lines.
Towards the end of the second half, and much to our delight, Yana replaced Janice Cayman to help Belgium see out the victory and secure their place in the play offs. Which first of all will see a two-legged battle with Switzerland with the winner of that tie playing the winner of Netherlands versus Denmark for Europe’s final World Cup spot.
Fingers crossed Yana and Belgium will be joining Christie Murray’s Scotland who brilliantly secured qualification for their first ever World Cup finals with victory over Albania.
Thanks to Deb for putting up with me during the trip and to Yana for the tickets for the game!
New posts coming in the next few days taking a look back at the weekend’s trip to Arsenal (mainly about putting it into perspective!) and a new X-Reds blog as I went to support Gemma Bonner with her new club. I also have a piece on Reds number 14 Kirsty Linnett ready to share so keep your eyes peele for that one!