In Focus: Kirby getting back to her best for champions Chelsea
Fran Kirby is making up for lost time at Chelsea.
The England international missed a large chunk of last season and the World Cup with a knee injury that kept her out for eight months.
But she made her return for the Blues in October's 2-1 win over Tottenham — and has continued to play a key part for the champions this term.
Ahead of today's top-of-the-table clash with Arsenal, we take a look at Kirby's form in 2023-24.
Slowly but surely
At 30, Kirby has been eased back into action after a long-term lay-off.
She has only started four Women's Super League games, coming on as a substitute on another four occasions.
But signs suggest Chelsea's No14 is slowly returning to somewhere near her best form, with a goal and two assists in her last four league appearances.
Blues boss Emma Hayes said: "I've been really patient and it will remain that way until at least Christmas.
"She has started to look like her old self, in terms of getting a bit sharper to try to get beyond players. I still think that will take some time.
"The next step for her is the out-of-possession part and the transitions, but it will come.
"When you're out for six months in this business, the level's so quick it takes time, but she's getting there."
Making a mark
Despite her limited minutes, Kirby has impressed in the WSL this season.
Ahead of this weekend, she ranked first in the division for shot-creating actions per 90 minutes (6.88) and second for goal-creating actions per 90 (1.32).
With 3.42 key passes and an expected assists tally of 0.5 per 90, Kirby remains one of the most creative players in England's top tier.
And her ability to produce a moment of quality in close games could be crucial for Chelsea in what looks likely to be a hard-fought title race.
Hayes' side are three points clear of Arsenal having won seven of their eight WSL matches heading into today's huge game at the Emirates.
Chelsea will be hoping that Kirby, given her experience and quality, can make an impact against the Gunners.
With things looking positive for Kirby at Chelsea, the attacking midfielder will have an eye on permanently regaining her place in England's starting XI.
She was named in Sarina Wiegman's latest squad, before starting in the 3-2 Nations League win over the Netherlands and then scoring in a 6-0 victory against Scotland.
And she certainly has the support of her international team-mates.
Back in October, defender Lucy Bronze said: "She is a huge miss for us, particularly when you think we played a whole World Cup without her.
"It's great to see her back, doing well and enjoying her football again."
Kirby will hope to continue her progress in what promises to be a memorable game between Chelsea and Arsenal at the WSL summit.