The Continental Tyres League Cup has a special place in the heart of Niamh Charles. It's the first major trophy she won as a Chelsea player – and the England international wants to get her hands on it once again when we take on Arsenal on Sunday.

‘It's the competition I played my first proper final,’ recalls the Blues defender. ‘I’d had the Community Shield at the start of the season, but then it was the League Cup. It was the first time I had the real taste of what it feels like to win a trophy, so it means a lot.’

Victory in the 2021 final was the last occasion the Blues won the League Cup, a dominant win over Bristol City was recorded that day in which Charles appeared off the bench with Chelsea leading 6-0.

The 24-year-old was in the early stage of her Blues career at that point and had yet to master the left-back role Emma Hayes envisioned for her after growing up as a forward.

Fast forward to the present day 2024 and it is a very different situation for Charles. She has firmly established herself as the first choice at left-back for club and country and has worn the captain's armband for Chelsea this season.

In a dressing room full of senior internationals and serial trophy-winners, that speaks volumes about Charles’ quality, mentality, and maturity. Yet she believes there is still more to come.

‘I don’t want to be at my peak yet because I’d like to think I’ve got a lot of years left in me, where I can be even better,' she says. ‘When I first came to Chelsea, I thought I was ready. Maybe I was in a sense, but I think I had a lot to learn.

‘When I look back there is so much I’ve learned during those four years. Every year that's gone by, I’ve developed massively, both on and off the pitch. I’d have loved that to happen overnight, but that is not reality.

‘It has been a long progression. This is how I’m performing in the here and now, but hopefully I can kick on again and reach the next level.’

Most would agree that Charles’ form in 2023/24 has been the best of her career so far. However, it feels wrong to call this a breakthrough season.

After all, she did end her first campaign in Blue by starting and playing the entirety of the Champions League final. Charles has also won three league and cup doubles in her time with the Blues.

So does it feel different to her?

‘I do feel like I’ve developed a lot this season in so many ways,' she says. 'I’ve really enjoyed the extra responsibility and I’m also grateful to even get the opportunity to play so much – without that game time, it wouldn’t have allowed me to take on more of a leadership role.

‘I’ve enjoyed playing consistently in one position and growing within that role and growing within the team.’

Consistency has brought out the best out of the Blues’ left-back. So far this season no member of the Chelsea squad has played more minutes in the WSL, a fact that even surprises Charles.

Charles insists, though, that her extra responsibility wasn’t born out of a pre-season conversation with manager Emma Hayes. It was far more organic.

‘We never spoke directly about it,' she says. 'When I came into this season it was right off the back of training a lot during the World Cup [with England]

‘I wanted to kick onto the next level and become more consistent. It was never a direct conversation with Emma, it was my own personal target. And it has just sort of happened naturally I guess.

‘Any game I get to start and play I’m really happy about, both for my club and at international level. Both are a challenge.

'There are differences but I think both complement each other and this year particularly I’ve learned so much from both. It’s also a massive honour to play for your country, so I’ve really enjoyed that.’

Whatever happens on Sunday – or in the remainder of our season – Charles can be proud of her efforts over the last seven months, especially given the challenges that the Blues have faced during the campaign.

‘In the story of this season, where we’ve had a lot of injuries and it’s not always been easy, the fact we have kept going in four competitions has been really important to me.

‘We’ve come together, dug in, and worked really hard. But nothing has been won yet. That’s what we really want, something to show for all that work we’ve put in.’

With the Blues still fighting across four fronts, the hope is the League Cup final ignites a rush of silverware over the next two months.

Sunday’s Arsenal showdown will be the finale of an intense March, but the Blues do have FA Cup and Champions League semi-finals to look forward to after the international break, as well as the final furlong of the WSL title race.

Charles says the key element to approaching the challenges ahead is to avoid nerves – and these are the occasions she lives and breathes football for.

She explains: ‘As a professional, these are the games you want to play in. I don’t want there to be a final and to be sat at home watching it not involved. This is where I want to be.

‘Hopefully, it will good day for us and the fans. It’ll be a really tough game of course, it always is against Arsenal, but we hope we can bring that one home.’