Chelsea ‘grafter’ has limited time to prove World Cup credentials as problem laid bare

‘Is it mine?!’ was Beth England’s shocked reaction as a journalist named her as the scorer of the opener after Chelsea’s 2-0 win at Brighton on Sunday.

With the Women’s Super League fixture coming just 48 hours after the Blues landed back in the UK after their Champions League victory away at Paris St Germain, a much-altered team took to the field at the Broadfield Stadium as England was handed her first start of the season.

In Sussex, England had the chance to make her case to become a regular starter among Emma Hayes’ talent-stuffed squad, with WSL minutes the crucial currency with which the striker can buy her place on the plane to Australia for the 2023 World Cup.

The hosts staved off reigning champions Chelsea until an hour into the contest, when England was on hand to make sure that the ball went in the back of the net after Niamh Charles’ header was cleared from the goalmouth. Imagining that the ball had already crossed the line, the surprised England was apologetic to her team-mate in her post-match interview - but she should have no regrets about her intervention, which she and Chelsea really needed.

The poacher’s finish might not have been the sit-up-and-pay-attention flash of brilliance to call Sarina Wiegman to cancel her plans and tune into the last half hour of a wet Sunday evening WSL fixture - but wasn’t it by a forward being in the right place at the right time that England won the Euro 2022 final? For every Georgia Stanway v Spain stunner, you need the alertness of Chloe Kelly in the six-yard box to go the distance at major tournaments.

As Alessia Russo scored seven minutes into her first England start of the post-Ellen White era, it seemed as though Wiegman’s solution to the retirement of the Lionesses all-time record goalscorer was neatly tied up.

But there is now a question mark over the fitness of the Manchester United striker - and not for the first time - leaving Wiegman with the need to create a dependable plan B before the European Champions attempt to go one step further down under.

England missed out in October as Wiegman opted to give youth a chance, recalling Houston Dash’s Ebony Salmon and England’s Blues team-mate Lauren James, both 21 years old, to her squad for friendlies against the USA and the Czech Republic.

With 21 senior caps to her name, England boasts more international experience than Russo, Salmon and James combined, while you imagine that her time in the Euro 2022 squad might give her the edge over the latter pair when weighing up options for a major tournament on the other side of the world.

But come July, England may learn the hard way that past successes will not make up for a poverty of playing time.

The 28-year-old is no stranger to selection anxiety, after her early experiences at Kingsmeadow were characterised by a desperate fight to displace the likes of Blues stars Ji So-yun and Eniola Aluko. Taking one step back to take two steps forward, a successful loan spell at Liverpool was all it took to bring her into the fold at Chelsea where she bagged a whopping 22 goals in the 2018-2019 season to earn her first England call-up the following August.

Since the arrival of Aussie superstar Sam Kerr has shifted the spotlight in West London, England’s place in Australia looks uncertain despite her experience and sharpness in front of goal. With an eye on next summer, another WSL loan spell might have been a wise move for the striker, whose chances to prove herself may now depend on the Blues’ progress in the Champions League.

If Hayes persists with squad rotation, a strong run in Europe will breed opportunities for England to feature in some of Chelsea’s more ‘routine’ WSL games and the self-professed ‘grafter’ will no doubt seize her moments, as she did at Brighton.

But will one start in every five games be enough for England to show Wiegman what she’s really made of?