England’s road to World Cup glory begins with Arnold Clark Cup return

England were in trouble, as teams often are when their centre-back is thrown forward into the box in the dying moments, wheeled into place as a makeshift striker. And yet, even as the Lionesses were ten minutes away from being knocked out of the Euros, trailing Spain on a stuffy July night in Brighton, Sarina Wiegman had prepared for that exact scenario.

It’s a plan that managers don’t really want to use, a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation, and when Millie Bright was given the signal it was an admission that things had gone wrong. But England had been there before: rewind five months and Bright had been hauled forward in the final match of the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup, as the Lionesses chased the late goal they needed to beat Spain to the title.

It was in the 84th minute when Bright struck against Germany to give England the lead and, from there, their first trophy under Wiegman. It was almost in the same minute later that year when Ella Toone rescued the Lionesses against Spain at the Euros. And there was Bright in the box again, glass shattered on the floor, being a presence and creating a panic, just as the defender had done against Germany at Molineux.

England’s journey to becoming European champions began when Wiegman took over in September 2021, but it did not really get off the ground until the Arnold Clark Cup. The four-team tournament, hosted by England, was the building block for everything that followed in the summer, providing fixtures against top-ranked opposition ahead of a major tournament that proved invaluable when the Lionesses reached the knockout stages of the Euros months later.

The Arnold Clark Cup returns now for its second year, and with another huge target on the horizon. The World Cup is approaching fast and will frame the next fortnight in the same way as the home Euros did last year. England will arrive in Australia and New Zealand as one of the favourites for the World Cup, following their European championships victory and win over the USA in October. The countdown to their opening match on 22 July is well underway.

The calibre of opposition at this month’s Arnold Clark Cup is not as strong: while England hosted Spain, Germany and Canada last season, all teams positioned in the top-10 of the Fifa rankings, their opponents this time can be found in the rung below. South Korea, who England play in their opening match on Thursday night, are 15th in the world while Italy and Belgium are 17th and 20th respectively. Belgium did not qualify for the World Cup, while Italy failed to reach the knockout rounds at the Euros.

Bright’s crucial goal against Germany last season came as a makeshift striker

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With the Finalissima against Brazil to come in April at a sold-out Wembley, there is room for England to treat these games more as friendlies, rather than the pre-tournament tests last year’s matches resembled. With three matches in six days, Wiegman may look to experiment and will certainly shuffle the pack at times. The England manager used 20 players across the Arnold Clark Cup last year and although the core of her squad is set ahead of the World Cup, this is the moment for new additions to stake a claim.

Lauren James is the most exciting new face from last summer. The Chelsea winger has been one of the outstanding players in the Women’s Super League this season and in the absence of Beth Mead, the position on the right side of England’s attack looks to be hers for the taking. James has made just two starts for England but the 21-year-old will expect to add to that here, and it would help ease the blow of Mead’s ACL injury ahead of the World Cup if she can replicate her blistering club form for the Lionesses.

Winger Jess Park, forward Katie Robinson and defender Maya Le Tissier are other fresh faces added to the squad, as Wiegman continues to tap into the next wave of young talent. The fight for places is illustrated by the fact that the England manager has named a 26-player squad for the Arnold Clark Cup but will only be able to take 23 to Australia and New Zealand, after Fifa rejected a proposal to make the squad sizes the same as were used at the men’s World Cup in Qatar last December.

Among them, Jordan Nobbs will hope to seize her opportunity after the midfielder was called up as an injury replacement for Fran Kirby. Nobbs left Arsenal after a 12-year spell in January and joined Aston Villa in the hope of getting more game time before the World Cup but was initially left out. The 30-year-old was called up after Kirby suffered a knee injury, and then went on to score a hat-trick in Sunday’s WSL win over Brighton in a statement display.

James has been in sparkling form for Chelsea

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Beth England and Lucy Staniforth also moved clubs in January but were not selected for the Arnold Clark Cup, with Wiegman explaining it was because of the performances of the players in front of them in the pecking order. England’s form since joining Tottenham – where she has scored four goals in four appearances – shows how intense the competition for selection has become.

Wiegman will hope it sharpens her team as they begin 2023 and the next phase of her project. The Lionesses used the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup to shape their greatest victory at the Euros, even if Bright being their top scorer and sharing the golden boot with Spain’s Alexia Putellas could not have featured in Wiegman’s wildest imagination. Bright’s late goal against Germany had been part of the preparation, though, and it gave England a sense of calm even as they came close to being knocked out by Spain in the quarter-finals.

Now England take to a new road. Whatever the Lionesses go on to achieve at the World Cup, it begins over the next week.

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