Alessia Russo has repaid faith with a flourish to keep England dreaming | Women’s World Cup 2023

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Rewind to 27 July 2022, the night Alessia Russo wrote herself into the history books. In the heat of a Sheffield semi-final, England’s “super sub” produced one of the most audacious goals seen at a European Championship. “The Russo” as it has come to be known – the cheeky angled backheel that befuddled a Sweden defender and nutmegged Hedvig Lindahl in goal – is now adorned on T-shirts and mugs and earned her a nomination for the 2022 Puskas Award. It was the moment the world woke up to exactly what England’s calm blue-eyed assassin could do.

Fast forward to July-August 2023 and Russo’s stock has risen rapidly while her role for the Lionesses has markedly changed. She spent the last tournament as the apprentice to Ellen White, used for impact off the bench in all their matches. Since the retirement of England’s record goalscorer, however, she has taken on the responsibility of a starting role, the focal point of Sarina Wiegman’s attack.

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This change was always going to be an adjustment as Russo, and others, got used to their new roles and another cycle began. It has not been without its pressures for the striker, with international goals over the last season hard to come by – before this tournament she had scored only three. Her work rate has never been in question but she was struggling to make it count in front of goal. Significant injuries to core players have not helped the rhythm of England’s attack and meant Russo had added responsibility on her shoulders, with solutions needed quickly.

The anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained by Beth Mead, the Lionesses’ top goalscorer and the Golden Boot winner at Euro 2022, was a substantial blow. Not only was the team’s most potent source of goals taken away, but the Arsenal forward’s deliveries into the penalty area would have been lapped up by a player with Russo’s aerial ability. Strip out, too, the vision and artistry of Fran Kirby, ruled out after a knee problem picked up in February, and you remove the creative cog pulling the strings behind England’s front line.

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Alessia Russo’s magic backheel for England against Sweden
Alessia Russo’s magic backheel made her a household name as England won Euro 2022. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Uefa/Getty Images

Added pressure on Russo has come from the domestic form of the left-back/striker Rachel Daly. Playing up front for Aston Villa, she scored an impressive 22 goals in 22 matches, finishing as the WSL’s top scorer and matching the record set by Vivianne Miedema for the most goals in a season. Coming into this tournament – Russo’s first World Cup – one of the biggest questions in the minds of pundits and fans was whether the manager would stick with Russo or opt for the firepower and experience of Daly up front.

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The talk has not appeared to faze Russo, who comes across in conversation as level-headed and fairly laid-back. With Wiegman opting to stick with her, she has grown into the competition and flourished in the new system. She endured a quiet opening two matches, where she provided energy in the press and with her movement but had little in terms of action in front of goal. With the change to a 3-4-1-2 formation before the game against China, her fortunes changed.

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The developing partnership with Lauren Hemp has been one of the highlights of the Lionesses’ campaign. They have played alongside each other at youth level and the understanding is clear. They complement each other’s skillset and possess an instinct of where the other will be that is developing with every game. Playing off another striker has allowed Russo to be dynamic and her qualities have come to the fore. She has been able to roam rather than be a more static forward, choosing when to drop deep to link the midfield to the attack, break at pace down the channels or go the more direct route through the middle. At 5ft 9in, she also has a good awareness of how to utilise her physicality. Out of possession, she is an endless source of running, pressing the opposition and tracking back to help her defence.

Both forwards have reaped the rewards, and both have scored in England’s past two matches. Russo’s technique is one of the best in the squad and she has a natural eye for goal. The goals she scored against both Colombia and Australia were trademark finishes, breaking on to a through ball, holding off the defender or finding the space past them and angling a shot home.

Spain await, the one remaining obstacle in England’s path. In Irene Paredes, Russo will come up against one of the most experienced operators in the game, but Spain’s defence does have its flaws. They are without arguably their best defender, with Mapi León ruling herself out of selection. Russo will be full of confidence, aware of the frailties and will leave everything out on the pitch to help England’s push to take home the biggest trophy of all.

For a 24-year-old, playing in a World Cup final at the first time of asking is significant. After the semi-final defeat of Australia, Russo described it as “what we’ve been dreaming since we were little girls”.

“This is the biggest game,” Russo says. “The one that you dream about; the one that means the most. I feel like it will hit when we’re in the tunnel, and we’re ready to walk out. I think it’s an incredible occasion. It’s been an unbelievable tournament. This is this is exactly where we want to be, and we can’t wait.”

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