Demi Stokes sounds slightly surprised. “I didn’t actually know they’d won it that many times,” says the Manchester City and England left-back. “But you can’t think about the past – it won’t matter on Saturday.”
Stokes is talking about the Continental League Cup final at Bramall Lane where City, twice winners of the eight-year-old competition, face Arsenal, who have lifted the trophy five times.
No other team have had a look-in in what can seem almost a private rivalry between two clubs also currently challenging for the Women’s Super League title, with Nick Cushing’s City topping the table, two points ahead of Joe Montemurro’s side, albeit having played two games more.
Last season’s Continental Cup final saw Arsenal beat Cushing’s players 1-0 as Vivianne Miedema scored the only goal and Montemurro collected his first prize since leaving his native Australia to take charge in north London.
It marked the start of a City slump which would see them end a season which had started extremely brightly without a trophy. Their fans fear a cruel repeat but, in this instance at least, Stokes prefers to regard history as bunk. “We’re not thinking about last season,” she says. “We’re in good form – and we’re in a good place, a much better place than a year ago.”
The same could be said about her. After eight months sidelined by a serious and complex hip injury, Stokes is fit again, enjoying influencing matters on the pitch and looking forward to rejoining Phil Neville’s England squad on the flight to the United States for the SheBelieves Cup, a prestigious international friendly tournament, next week.
“Being injured for so long does stress you out a bit and my load in training still has to be carefully managed but I had really good care and rehab and it’s very nice to be going to the SheBelieves,” she says. “I think there’s nine of us from City travelling with England. Not long after the tournament Phil names his World Cup squad for France this summer, so it’s an important time.”
While Cushing prepares to wave a temporary farewell to that cohort, Montemurro has only Leah Williamson and Beth Mead with England during an international break in which his Netherlands and Scotland players, including Miedema and Kim Little, will compete in the potentially less draining Algarve Cup.
Arsenal’s third regular England player, Jordan Nobbs, is not playing after rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament and that knee injury deprives the Bramall Lane crowd of watching a world-class attacking midfielder. “I’m heartbroken for Jordan,” says Stokes, with genuine feeling. “Jordan’s recovery’s going well but it’s very disappointing for her – and for England.”
During her own lay-off Stokes found it a huge psychological help that Cushing and Neville kept her very much involved, with the former taking her on City’s summer tour to Miami even though she was far from fit and the latter inviting her to a couple of England camps and sending frequent text messages. “I think it’s important for injured players to still feel included,” says the 27-year-old. “Being kept in the loop makes a big difference.”
Montemurro’s players limbered up this week with a trip to a London sushi restaurant as guests of the Arsenal men’s goalkeeper Petr Cech, a keen supporter of his female counterparts. “Petr’s one of the nicest men in football, certainly that I’ve met,” says Williamson, who has excelled in central defence this season.
Cech has been particularly impressed by Miedema’s attacking play and will be hoping to see their leading scorer add to her 25 goals this season. “I don’t want to be one-on-one against Viv in training,” adds Williamson. “She can score however she wants to – you are her puppet.”
If a key subplot will be the duel between Miedema and the City and England captain, Steph Houghton, a centre-half arguably in the form of her career, the midfield battle involving City’s Jill Scott and Keira Walsh, and Arsenal’s Little and Danielle van de Donk, promises to be similarly intriguing. Then there is Williamson’s prospective tussle with City’s prolific Nikita Parris. “It’s going to be a tough game,” Stokes adds. “But we’re in a very good place at the moment.”
Arsenal (4-3-3, possible): Van Veenendaal; Arnth, Williamson, Quinn, Veje; Bloodworth, Little, Van de Donk; Evans, Miedema, Mead.
Manchester City (4-4-2, possible) Roebuck; Bonner, Houghton, Beattie, Stokes; Weir, Scott, Walsh, Wullaert; Stanway, Parris.
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