Alessia Russo: Arsenal striker admits first campaign has been 'tough' as she aims for first club trophy

Alessia Russo

Women's League Cup final - Arsenal v Chelsea

Venue: Molineux Date: Sunday, 31 March Kick-off: 15:00 GMT

Coverage: Watch on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website

Having been at the centre of arguably the biggest and most drawn out transfer saga in Women's Super League history, it was always going to be tough for Alessia Russo to live up to the hype.

After months of speculation and a rejected world record bid in January, the England striker moved to Arsenal from Manchester United on a free transfer in the summer.

Russo, who has been one of the most recognisable names in English women's football since her starring role in the Lionesses' Euro 2022 triumph, has had a solid start to life at the Gunners with six goals in 16 WSL appearances this season.

But Arsenal have underwhelmed this campaign - knocked out of the Champions League in qualifying and six points off the WSL title pace - and Russo has found herself out of the team for some of the biggest games.

She started on the bench for the recent WSL blockbusters against Manchester United at Emirates Stadium and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, with Sweden's Stina Blackstenius preferred as the starting number nine.

Russo, speaking to BBC Sport before the Continental Cup final on Sunday, 31 March, took a philosophical view of her first season at Arsenal - while admitting it has not been smooth sailing.

"I have learned a lot about myself as a player and as a person," the 25-year-old said. "It has been tough at times, but as a player at a new club you want to be able to contribute as much as you can, then you find your feet. But I have been loving it.

"It's always tough - every player wants to play, and they are lying if they don't say that.

"But we also have such a talented squad, and we work so hard in training every day that if anyone's moment comes, we can be called upon. You have just got to keep working hard and keep your head down."

'It will be a special one'

Stina Blackstenius and Alessia Russo
Stina Blackstenius (left) and Russo have rarely started games together for Arsenal this season

While Russo and Arsenal have not had the stellar seasons they may have expected, they can end the campaign with a trophy should they beat Chelsea at Molineux on Sunday.

The Blues have largely held the upper hand over Arsenal in recent seasons, knocking them out of the FA Cup in the past two campaigns, as well as beating them 3-1 in the recent league meeting to all but end the Gunners' title ambitions.

But Arsenal did get one back on Chelsea with a 3-1 win in the League Cup final last season - and Russo has additional impetus to ensure a repeat in 2024.

While Russo is a European champion with England and enjoyed trophy success in US college soccer, she has never won a club trophy in English football. The closest she came was last season, when United finished second in the WSL and were beaten in the FA Cup final - on both occasions losing out to Chelsea.

"It's exciting," she says of a possible first trophy for her current, or any club. "As a player you want to compete for every kind of trophy there is. It will be a really exciting game and the occasion around it, it will be a special one."

Even at only 25, Russo is a veteran of major finals - including the 2023 World Cup final, which she started for England. She hopes to draw on those experiences here, including the memories of how hard it was to lose that final to Spain in Sydney.

"It's really useful," she said. "I've been on the winning and losing side of cup finals - it hurts to lose.

"But on the flip side there is no greater feeling than winning a trophy, knowing the work that has gone into it and winning it as a team."

It remains to be seen what role Russo has in this final, given Arsenal's preference to pick either her or Blackstenius in matches. The pair have only started two league matches together this campaign, and both were before November.

'I have had to do lot of work on my game'

Alessia Russo
Russo suffered double final disappointment last season, with Manchester United in the FA Cup and England at the World Cup

Blackstenius started the recent meetings with Manchester United and Cheslsea, and has impressed.

The Swede has scored four goals in 399 WSL minutes, an average of 0.9 goals per 90 minutes this campaign according to Opta. In comparison, Russo's six goals from 1,230 minutes leaves her with an average of only 0.44.

Per 90 minutes Blackstenius has also created more expected goals compared to Russo - 1.39 to 0.51 - and has averaged 12 touches in the opposition box per game, double Russo's number.

Russo, however, says she is glad to have Blackstenius as a team-mate and has learned a lot this season, with the situation comparable to that of goalkeepers - a competitive friendliness, knowing only one of them is going to be picked.

"I get on really well with Stina, we have a good relationship," she says. "She's a great player, and we make each other better - all the forwards. We are competing with each other and doing our best for the team."

Blackstenius having more touches in the opposition area is a key indicator as to why she is being picked ahead of Russo, with Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall speaking earlier this season about wanting his forwards to be in better goal-scoring areas.

Eidevall singled out Russo as needing to improve in this aspect, and that he aims to turn her into a 20-goal a season striker.

Russo is not one to shirk a challenge, saying she is thankful for her manager's belief in her potential and thrilled by learning a new role well into her career.

"I have had to do lot of work on my game, on and off the pitch, analysing stuff," she said.

"I am new to the position, I have only really been a centre-forward for three seasons, but it is a position you never stop learning. The more work you do, the better it will be.

"It is exciting. What I love about football is it is always changing, and there are different things you can do to add to your game and help you as a player. I love trying new things, trying to get better, and trying to make myself into different things and fit into different things, it's cool.

"I love scoring goals and being around the box, ever since I was a kid that was my favourite part of football. It's tough in a league of such a high level against such good defenders, but I want to score more goals, create more. It takes time, but it is nice to have something to aim for."