FROM VOLKSWAGEN ARENA – Arsenal miraculously came from behind amid injury crisis to give them all to play for in the second leg of their Women’s Champions League semi-final.
While going 2-0 down in the space of five first half minutes was not the way Arsenal would have wanted to begin their UWCL semi-final campaign, their ability to turn the game around proved pivotal in keeping their chances of a first European final in 16 years alive.
Arsenal set up for a strong Wolfsburg attack with Jonas Eidevall opting for a central back three, bringing in Jen Beattie alongside Lotte Wubben-Moy and Rafaelle after a gaping hole was left by the recent ACL injury to England skipper, Leah Williamson.
Williamson was the third Arsenal star to do the dreaded ACL, after Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema tore theirs earlier on in the season. Arsenal have a plethora of injury-stricken players including the recent omission of Caitlin Foord and Kim Little, whose absence until the start of next season because of a hamstring problem was confirmed last week.
Wolfsburg set a high press on Arsenal as the pressure began mounting on the travelling north London side as Stina Blackstenius tried to exploit the space behind ex-Gunners defender Dominique Janssen but they lacked quality moving into the final third.
With injuries plaguing their starting XI, Arsenal had to adapt their tactics, swinging ex-Wolfsburg player Noelle Martiz and Australian full-back Steph Catley in and out of midfield to counter the control and aggression Lena Oberdorf and former Arsenal star Jill Roord brought to the German side.
Arsenal’s inability to move bodies back quick enough allowed Sveindis Jonsdottir to thread the ball through to Ewa Pajor and steal the opener, in such clinical fashion that the side has come to expect from the Polish striker who registers the most goals in the UWCL this season.
Wolfsburg were frankly gifted their second as a sloppy mistake from Rafaelle played a pass straight to Jonsdottir lurking in the box who slotted the ball past Manuela Zinsberger to double their lead. The last time Arsenal reached a UWCL semi-final was 2012/13 when they were knocked out by – you guessed it – Wolfsburg, and it looked like the same might happen again here.
With lacking communication between the backline, Little and Williamson’s leadership was clearly missing as the Gunners struggled defensively, allowing the home side’s wing backs to get in behind.
Frida Maanum had been kept relatively quiet in midfield but her ability to find space in the final third and force a set piece proved pivotal earning Arsenal a corner. Left-footed Catley swung the cross in to find Rafaelle who headed home at the back post, making up for her earlier mistake giving Arsenal something the play for in the second half.
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But being caught napping at the back has been somewhat of a kryptonite all season as Wubben-Moy failed to track a run with the cross eventually ending up on the roof of the net.
Arsenal’s ability to turn a situation around in mere minutes did secure them the equaliser after some terrific play. Victoria Pelova’s magnificent run in the inside right channel foiled both Janssen and goalkeeper Merle Frohms, allowing Blackstenius to slot it home.
While they struggled to generate pace in early in the afternoon, their build up play developed massively as the equaliser seemingly took some sting out of the home side.
With frustrations for Wolfsburg bubbling and tensions running all afternoon between Lena Oberdorf and Katie McCabe, a nasty tackle on Lia Walti led to an altercation between the skipper and German midfielder ending with them both in the book.
By the end, Arsenal were immensely proud of their ability to counter and level the score, given the missing players and lack of depth to the bench.
“Obviously it’s different for us to be defending a bit more, but I feel like we handled it really well,” Blackstenius ruled, speaking after the match.
“That’s just how the game turned out. We had to believe that could also be good for us. I am really proud of how we have been handling this week and year with a lot of players injured. I feel like that [all the injuries] has made us even stronger.”
Ending the afternoon on a draw after Arsenal clawed their way back into the game means that Arsenal are still in with a chance of reaching their first UWCL final since 2007 as the pair face off in front of what promises to be a big crowd at the Emirates Stadium next week.