A World Cup year is about to get underway on the international stage for approximately half the Chelsea Women squad with a busy week of warm-ups across the Pond and in Europe.
England – who are fourth in the FIFA rankings and, for the first time ever, will start the tournament in France expecting to win – step up their preparations by playing three champions of their respective continents in the space of seven days at the SheBelieves Cup.
The Lionesses have contested all three previous editions of the friendly competition, alongside the United States – the annual hosts, holders, and also the team whose title will be on the line in June and July – and, this year, they are joined by Brazil and Japan.
Fran Kirby, Carly Telford and Karen Carney, who missed out due to injury 12 months ago, all received call-ups from head coach Phil Neville, while our vice-captain Millie Bright has remained at Cobham as part of a long-term strategy agreed by the club and the FA to manage her return to full fitness. The squad met up in London at the weekend before travelling to the East Coast of America, where – like at the World Cup – the fixtures and flights will come thick and fast.
The opening game of the round-robin event sees England take on Brazil in Philadelphia tonight, which kicks off at 9pm in the UK and will be shown live on BBC TV (as will all of their matches in the build-up to this summer’s main attraction.) The Latin Americans are proverbial buses for the Lionesses, who waited 46 years to meet the Samba Stars until their friendly at Meadow Lane last October. Kirby’s goal made the difference on that occasion after only two minutes, with Telford [pictured below] and Bright deserving their clean sheet.
England’s second showdown, against the USA in Nashville on Saturday night, has a richer history and, in recent years, an even one. At the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, former Chelsea youngster Ellen White clinched a solitary goal at the death to condemn Jill Ellis’s side to their first defeat in 26 matches. Last year, the Stars and Stripes reversed the result and denied Neville what would have been overall victory at his first tournament in charge.
The Lionesses will complete their campaign in Tampa next Tuesday against Japan, who they will face again in their final group game at the World Cup. The 2011 World Champions knocked England out in the semi-finals of the most recent tournament in agonising fashion, following an own-goal in the final minute of extra time, so they will be eager to get that out of their system before the summer.
The SheBelieves Cup may be the biggest show in town this week, but there are also two World Cup-style tournaments taking place in Europe, involving a whole host of Chelsea Women players.
Scotland, with January's WSL Player of the Month Erin Cuthbert [pictured above] in their ranks, return to the Algarve Cup ahead of their inaugural appearance on the biggest stage of all.
Norway, captained by Maren Mjelde and including Maria Thorisdottir, also take part, while there could be four Chelsea players on the pitch when Sweden, who boast Blues defensive trio Hedvig Lindahl, Magdalena Eriksson and Jonna Andersson, meet Ramona Bachmann’s Switzerland. Meanwhile, Adelina Engman is set to feature for Finland as they kick off their 2019 at the Cyprus Cup.
By Danny Wittenberg