Bristol look to take the fight to Arsenal in women's FA Cup final

Natalia Pablos Sanchón is described as "the female Michu" by her manager.

When paired with Laura Del Río Garcia, she forms half of the Spanish strike force which Bristol Academy hope can propel them to victory against Arsenal Ladies in the Women's FA Cup final at Doncaster's Keepmoat Stadium on Sunday.

Arsenal are favourites but they will not underestimate Mark Sampson's side. Before taking charge at Bristol Academy, he coached Swansea City's youth players during the days when Roberto Martínez managed the club. "I learnt so much from Roberto, more than from anyone else I've met in football," says Sampson. "He's inspirational."

The experience of working under Wigan's Spanish manager perhaps influenced his decision to import two of Martínez's compatriots. "They've been great assets on the pitch and off it as well," says Sampson. "They're full-time professionals and they've taught the others good habits, shown them how to look after themselves. When I went to Spain to watch Natalia earlier this year she reminded me so much of Swansea's Michu in her movement, style and work ethic."

The majority of Sampson's young, largely semi-professional squad – Women's Super League (WSL) sides can possess a maximum of four professionals, often earning basic salaries of around £20,000 a year – possess a ferocious work ethic, frequently combining day jobs, such as teaching, with football.

"Everyone's on different contracts here but a lot of the players probably only break even after losing money by taking time off work to play for us," he says. With individuals based as far afield as Reading, Cardiff, Swansea and Plymouth, many spend countless hours on the road. "Quite a few do a lot of driving," he says. "Their mentality is fantastic."

Reaching the final represents a reward for such dedication and Sampson hopes it will also boost the region's footballing fortunes. "Bristol City were relegated from the Championship, Bristol Rovers haven't had a great season and the south west isn't exactly a hotbed of the women's game, so it would be wonderful if we could get some positive recognition. We're a small club and often, when you say you work for Bristol Academy, people reply 'who?' or 'what's that?'".

With his team, nicknamed the Vixens, having begun the new WSL summer season by climbing straight to the top of the table following three wins from three games, that might be about to change.

Yet if having Sanchón – for so long the star of Rayo Vallecano, where she scored 300 goals in 12 years – and Garcia – who played professionally in Germany and the United States after leaving Spain – helps, manager Shelley Kerr's Arsenal remain formidable.

Their start to the WSL campaign has been mixed but in England's Ellen White they possess a forward capable of fazing Sampson's defence. "Bristol's strikers are very strong and very difficult to play against," acknowledges White. "But we've got good players too."

She has experienced a "surreal" build-up to the final, attending a royal garden party for Great Britain's 2012 Olympians on Wednesday. "I took my fiance and it was fantastic," says the 24-year-old. "We didn't speak to any of the Royals but it was amazing to be standing a few feet from the Queen and Kate."

Playing for Leeds five years ago, White was not so fortunate. A ruptured cruciate ligament sidelined her for eight months. "It was tough but it made me a stronger person and a stronger player," she says.

Strength is something Arsenal Ladies have long been synonymous with. "It helps that we share the men's training facilities," says White. "Arsène Wenger is very supportive but there's a bit of pressure and a lot of responsibility because Arsenal is a massive club and everyone wants to beat us. Fortunately we've got a winning mentality."

Powered by article was written by Louise Taylor, for The Observer on Saturday 25th May 2013 15.19 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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