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  • Writer's pictureBy Dan Evans

The brilliance of Williamson has Arsenal dreaming of European glory

Arsenal (2) 2 Maanum 19, Blackstenius 26

Bayern Munich (0) 0

Arsenal win 2-1 on aggregate

Nights like these are where good teams become great ones and heroes become legends. Where circumstance and adversity draw the best out of some and cause others to crumble. Champions League tie in the balance. Emirates floodlights shining brightly enough to show who really wants to make a rainy night in north London their own.

With 10 minutes gone and their consistently brilliant captain forced from the field with an injury from a foul that was not given, Arsenal could have been forgiven for not continuing their excellent recent form in their quarter-final second leg. They bossed Bayern in Munich, starting the evening with an undeserved deficit to go with the unfortunate departure of Kim Little.

Jonas Eidevall’s side have shown in recent weeks that they are capable of reacting when things do not go their way. Back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea in February ended their interest in the FA Cup and left them off the pace in the Women’s Super League, but since then the Continental Tyres Cup has been secured and some of Europe’s best football has been played.

The manager found a solution to his early problem against Bayern as well. Leah Williamson was moved into her less familiar but still luxuriously comfortable second position in midfield and it was as though no change had been forced. If anything, Arsenal got even better.

While Little is all guile and agility, Williamson brings the physical presence that makes her such an outstanding international centre-back to the middle of the park. Crashing into tackles and cleaning up any ball that fell loose, the England captain was the key factor in Bayern failing to register a shot in the first half. She barely even let them out of their own half.

There is another side to Williamson’s game that makes her so brilliant though. Her composure in possession borders on the unbelievable and she can make passes from central defence that possibly no other player in the world can. But she is also full of flair. Exciting to watch even in the backline and even more so when positioned further forward.

Less than 10 minutes into this tie, she backheeled the ball into the path of Frida Maanum to blast Arsenal level on aggregate. Maanum is another who deserves a great deal of credit as part of the recent turnaround, and this goal that kissed the crossbar as it found the furthest corner of the Bayern net deserves better than to be a side note in the story of another, but Williamson’s influence was undeniable.

With the precedent set and the visitors further unnerved by the loss of their lead, Arsenal and their versatile temporary captain dominated further. The lights only got brighter and Bayern continued to wilt. Georgia Stanway, who has become such an influential component of the Bavarian engine room, was well and truly shackled by her England colleague. A cynical trip on the halfway line a reminder that Williamson was willing to use means foul if she could no longer be fair.

Just over five minutes after establishing parity, Arsenal were ahead in the tie and deservedly so. Katie McCabe, another who has thrived through Eidevall’s willingness to alter positions in the absence of Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema, advanced from left back and found the perfect cross for Stina Blackstenius to head home.

They did not let up from there either. Bayern were shellshocked and probably already beaten, but Maanum should have extended the lead with a shot that was cleared off the line and Lotte Wuben-Moy – Little’s substitute but Williamson’s replacement at the back – hit the bar from a right-wing cross.

The Bayern counter-comeback never materialised. Williamson did not tire and continued to get the better of Stanway. Maanum was still the game’s most creative presence, backheeling into the path of Caitlin Foord in the final 20 minutes for a chance that should have ended the contest.

The last month has made clear that Arsenal are a fabulous team. The last few years have shown just how brilliant Williamson is. But perhaps this performance and this win, against this level of opponent, hints that the silverware will be rolling in for both by the summer months.

Arsenal: (4-2-3-1) Zinsberger – Maritz, Williamson, Rafaelle, McCabe (Hurtig 89) – Little (Wuben-Moy 10), Walti – Pelova (Wienroither 77), Maanum, Foord – Blackstenius (Beattie 89). Subs not used: D’Angelo, Marckese, Goldie, Redi, Kuhl, Agyemang.


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