Women's Champions League: 'We have to pinch ourselves,' says Marissa Callaghan ahead of Benfica tie

Cliftonville captain Marissa Callaghan said the Reds "couldn't have asked for a better draw" ahead of their maiden Women's Champions League preliminary tie against Benfica on Wednesday.

The 38-year old has spent her whole career with the current Women's Premiership champions and will make her debut in the competition.

Callaghan is excited by the prospect of facing the Portuguese giants in Lisbon.

"We pinch ourselves when we think about coming up against Benfica," she said.

"You couldn't have asked for a better draw in terms of going to Portugal and playing at the Benfica training ground, it is unreal.

"These are the games you want to play in, so we're really looking forward to it."

Callaghan grateful for 'crazy' journey

Callaghan, who has been with Cliftonville for 18 years, has helped the Reds rise from the Championship to becoming Women's Premiership winners for the first time last season.

Despite reaching the latter stages of her career, the midfielder has been key to John McGrady's side's push for a domestic quadruple, scoring 19 league goals already this term.

She has already lifted the County Antrim Cup and League Cup this season, with an Irish Cup semi-final against Linfield to come.

The Reds are also hoping to retain their league title, and are currently three points behind leaders Glentoran.

Reflecting on the "crazy" journey so far, Callaghan, who has won 81 caps for Northern Ireland, has been delighted at the transformation of Cliftonville's fortunes in recent seasons.

"If you go back five years ago we were nowhere near this [Women's Champions League games] and luckily we transformed the club after the pandemic with the new management team.

"They set the standards and we got some good players in to strengthen the team."

She added: "It's special to everyone from where we came from to where we are now, the last couple of years have been unbelievable.

"We've been doing our preparation and trying to fit it in around our league schedule which has been difficult, but we want to go out and do the country proud."

'It will be the biggest game in our history'

Cliftonville have been handed arguably the toughest preliminary draw against Benfica.

They are the current Portuguese champions and have reached the Champions League group stage in the last two seasons.

The winners of the tie will progress to face either WFC BIIK-Shymkent from Kazakhstan or SFK Riga of Latvia in the next round, with the victorious team of that tie reaching the main stage draw.

Ten members of Benfica's team featured at the recent Women's World Cup, and Callaghan admits that Cliftonville will simply aim to be competitive.

"We're under no illusions to the quality they have, but we have quality players too. We will do our best, fight for everything and see what happens.

"We're under no pressure, we have a young squad, but one with a lot of international experience," she explained.

"The main thing for us is to take it all in. I'm coming to the end of my career and I just want to enjoy every minute of it."

Echoing Callaghan's sentiment, fellow Cliftonville midfielder Louise McDaniel, who has previous Champions League experience with Linfield, is looking forward to the momentous occasion as opposed to being phased by the size of the task at hand.

"We are really excited to go away to Portugal. It will probably be the biggest game in our history, against such a big club," she admitted.

"We will go out and want to compete, hopefully we can bring home a result."