Saturday, February 24, 2024

‘The club is building a great culture with the fans’ Lia Walti relishing packed Emirates on Sunday

Lia Walti joined Arsenal in the summer of 2018. The first time that Arsenal Women played at the Emirates in Walti’s tenure was a pre-season friendly against Bayern Munich in the summer of 2019, a sparsely attended game which Walti was injured for.

The club did not play a competitive fixture there until September 2021, drawing a crowd of just under 9,000 for a thrilling 3-2 win against Chelsea. On Sunday, Emirates Stadium will be full or close to it for the visit of the same opponents.

‘The first time I remember playing there we had, I think, 9,000 and now we are looking at, hopefully, a sold out crowd,’ Walti explains. Arsenal have regularly packed stadiums home and away over the last year or so and Walti says the difference is tangible. ‘It is very loud and you can feel that passion, the club is building a great culture with the fans.’

However, the Swiss international captain realises increased crowds create a different connection with supporters. ‘It means some of us were used to being able to give a lot to the fans when maybe there were a few hundred, it was so much easier to give autographs to everyone and have photos. When you have 50-60,000 in the stadium you obviously can’t give that to everyone.

‘For us, it’s a big change. Maybe we can’t connect in the same way but the fans keep coming back and really want to see the superstars they have seen at the Euros like Beth (Mead), Leah (Williamson) and Lessi (Russo), you can see we can be rolemodels for little kids who want to do what we are doing and that is the best part about being in this current generation to see little kids in the crowd smiling at us who want to be exactly where we are is just incredible.’

On the pitch, the Gunners have the small matter of a potentially season defining game against Chelsea, who have won each of the last four WSL titles. Arsenal trail Chelsea by three points at the top of the table, which emphasises the importance of the game. It’s not lost on Walti, nicknamed ‘Wally’ by her teammates.

‘We know these games have a big impact on the final table and we did well away at United and at home to City but we know this is going to be an even bigger game because they are three points ahead of us. It doesn’t get much bigger than Arsenal v Chelsea.

‘Most games between us are very tight, maybe the subs will make a difference on the day. But we are very excited and looking forward to the game, especially in front of our fans.’

The game also marks what could be Chelsea boss Emma Hayes’ last trip to Arsenal as Chelsea boss. Hayes, who has been in the Chelsea dugout for 12 years, will leave the club at the end of the season for the US Women’s National Team job. Walti says she respects Hayes’ achievements but that Arsenal want to make sure her final season is not a fruitful one.

‘Emma has done so much for women’s football in England, not just for Chelsea, she has been huge and we have the biggest respect for what she has done but we also don’t want her to finish on a high! We are here to compete and win trophies. We are not going to be nicer to them because it’s her last year, that’s for sure! The focus is on us, we want to win the league, we don’t just want to beat Chelsea.’

Arsenal play Chelsea at Emirates Stadium at 12.30 on Sunday.

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