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  • Writer's pictureBy Dan Evans

Arsenal's Champions League hopes finally slip away in last-gasp Wolfsburg defeat

Arsenal (1) 2 Blackstenius 11, Beattie 75

Wolfsburg (1) 3 Roord 41, Popp 58, Bremer 118

Wolfsburg win 5-4 on aggregate after extra time

In the end it was a step too far. Another tactically intelligent and emotionally engaging display against one of Europe’s elite, but a step too far. A series of brilliant individual performances among a group of players decimated by injuries, but a step too far. An expectant sold out crowd at the Emirates willed them on until the very last moment, but it was just a step too far.

Goals decide games, knockout Champions League ties more than any others, yet the sense that Arsenal’s attempts to end a 16-year wait to reclaim the trophy were fading came and went and came again long before Pauline Bremer scored for Wolfsburg in the dying moments of extra time in the second leg of this Champions League semi-final.

“It’s tough, it was a game of such fine margins,” said Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall post-match. “We are allowed to hurt tonight; to feel empty. We are also allowed to feel proud of the performance. There is a lot of emotions in the brain.” It is of course hope that is the strongest of those emotions, and it was hope that got thrown back and forth between Arsenal and their German opponents in this semi-final.

That hope could well have disappeared when both Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema suffered season-ending knee injuries within a couple of weeks of one another before Christmas. Captain Kim Little hobbling off in their quarter-final against Bayern Munich would have seen off most sides rather than galvanise them to go on and record a victory to remember. Losing Leah Williamson just days before the first leg against Wolfsburg would seem comical if it were not so cruel.

“We as a group got to a Champions League semi-final and didn’t make it [to the final] by the tiniest of margins,” explained Eidevall. “With all the injuries that we have and all the challenges that we have, to do that is incredible. I am so proud of the players and the staff.”

Eidevall has found ways to adapt to challenges all season long. Katie McCabe has played almost every position imaginable since the turn of the year and was once again inspirational through her brutality against the two-time UWCL winners here. Jen Beattie did a passable impression of Williamson in the centre of defence in the first half before going upfront to score an equaliser and then returning to the backline to see out the game. The England captain was repositioned behind the bar in a local pub pre match.

There was also a new game plan devised by Eidevall in the hope of securing a place in the final. The slick passing and positional rotation that defined the magnificent first half performance against Bayern was replaced by something perhaps more rudimentary but just as effective.

Long balls, perfectly placed into channels for Stina Blackstenius and Victoria Pelova exposed never before seen gaping holes in the Wolfsburg backline. Blackstenius careered through one such hole early on to round Merle Frohmes and give Arsenal the lead on the night and in the tie.

Just because Arsenal took a more direct route to goal in this game did not mean there was any less room for individual brilliance. They continued to threaten from rapid breakaways, yet it was a Frida Maanum backheel on the edge of her own box that got the record crowd most excited.

The intense pressing from the Bayern victory also remained, but it was as though the home side tired with the half-time whistle approaching and their control of the game was lost.

Noelle Maritz gave away a cheap free kick just inside her own half. The initial free-kick was not defended with the clear-minded organisation that has defined this Champions League run and was only half-cleared. Former Gunner Jill Roord picked out the bottom corner of the net as the ball dropped to her.

“I wasn’t that happy with our defensive organisation in the latter parts of the first half,” said Eidevall. “I think we collapsed too much and we were too passive. We needed to we needed to be much more active.”

The sense that the game’s momentum had shifted engulfed the Emirates. Those perfect Arsenal long passes became slightly too long. After VAR had both denied Wolfsburg an early penalty and confirmed the Blackstenius goal, it chalked off a second for the Swedish striker just minutes into the second half. Wolfsburg’s control of possession evolved into something eminently more threatening.

Alexandra Popp’s flicked near-post header from a corner just before the hour mark seemed like the sort of hammer blow that fit this particular story just right, arriving after Manuela Zinsberger had begun to struggle to deal with a series of set-pieces.

But Arsenal, as has been the case so many times already this season, stared adversity in the face and decided it would not let it beat them. It was Beattie’s perfectly placed header that drew them level but a thunderous Lottie Wuben Moy challenge on Svenja Huth as she looked destined to score that restored the tie’s equilibrium.

Destiny can be a strange thing. The direction this game was travelling in altered course on at least three occasions, each time careering towards a completely understandable and somewhat satisfactory outcome. From Beattie’s equaliser onwards it appeared that Arsenal’s name was surely on the trophy let alone on its way to Eindhoven for next month’s final.

Lina Hurtig was denied by Frohmes at the end of exactly the type of slick move Arsenal had previously been making their own this season, and as cramp set in and the structure of the game became muddled, bamboozled by the two hours of football that had taken place, McCabe bounced what was surely a misplaced pass off the crossbar.

Maybe it was that tiredness that took hold of Wubben Moy’s legs in the very last minute of extra time. Her turn inside was telegraphed by Jule Brand and no one could keep pace with substitute Bremer as she tapped home at the back post.

“I told her (Wubben Moy) to keep her head high,” revealed the Arsenal manager post-match. “Mistakes happen in football. We win as a team, and we lose as a team. We are here for each other. It is inevitable and we will learn from it. She was absolutely fantastic; it was a top performance.”

Broken Champions League dreams cannot be fixed by well-intended platitudes nor big picture thinking but the impact this night will have, for both Arsenal as a club and women’s football in the UK as a whole, cannot be defined by reaching a final or winning a trophy. This was a game of the highest quality played in front of a crowd of more than 60,000 people who were expecting, not hoping, for excitement from first whistle to last. This is the end of Arsenal’s Champions League hopes for this year yet surely only the start of something infinitely more meaningful in the long run.

Arsenal: (3-4-3) Zinsberger – Wubben-Moy, Beattie (Agyemang 119), Rafaelle – Maritz (Wienroither 64 (Kuhl 82)), Maanum, Walti, Catley – Pelova, Blackstenius (Hurtig 64), McCabe. Subs not used: Marckese, D’Angelo, Reid, Goldie, Harbert


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