What Arsenal have achieved can’t be undone by the cruellest of endings
For Arsenal, this was as cruel an end as you could write. A historic Champions League semi-final with Wolfsburg, with a sold out Emirates Stadium and a record crowd for a women’s club match in England, did not finish with the outcome the majority of the 60,063 crowd had longed for. But that is life, a reality this Arsenal team understands more than most, and from this heartbreak Jonas Eidevall’s side can instead take away something else.
It may not compensate for being denied a first Champions League final since 2007 in the 119th minute, but from being dealt what on the face of it looks to be the most rotten hand you could imagine - a squad decimated by injuries and torn apart by misfortune - Arsenal can still come away from this having produced an extraordinary European campaign. This night, and the Emirates itself, was evidence of that. What could have turned out to be a turgid season given everything that has transpired against them has instead been beyond anyone’s expectations.
But it remains just so devastatingly harsh on a team who had simply refused to go down. Lotte Wubben-Moy was inconsolable at the end but Beth Mead and Leah Williamson, her right leg covered in strapping, hobbled on and tried their best. Wubben-Moy had been robbed by Jule Brand and it was the Arsenal defender’s costly mistake that led to Pauline Bremer’s dramatic winner. But Wubben-Moy had been outstanding, as had the exceptional Jen Beattie alongside her.
Given everything Arsenal had overcome, there could not have been a more fitting goalscorer than the Scotland international. A player who has recovered from breast cancer and battled chemotherapy, who had barely played before Williamson ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament, was giant across both legs in the centre of a patched-up defence having barely played this season. Beattie was symbolic of how Arsenal have never quit, no matter how bad things have got. Almost ridiculously, they suffered even more injuries tonight.
Wubben-Moy, a lifelong Arsenal fan, for whom a night like this was beyond what she possibly could have dreamed, had set up Beattie’s equaliser in normal time. The England defender was another player who would not have played had Williamson been fit but supplied the stunning cross on her weaker foot to set up Beattie’s header - Arsenal clawing themselves back level once again at 4-4 in the tie, another dramatic moment in this breathless semi-final.
As Beattie fell backwards after planting her header into the bottom left corner, she barged over Alexandra Popp. It had been Popp’s moment before then, of course it was, the wily and experienced Germany striker, and it was fitting she - like Beattie - had played her part. Beattie and Popp had featured for Arsenal and Wolfsburg in the 2013 semi-final - they were playing the same game now, locked in battle, but in front of a landscape that has shifted beyond recognition. A decade ago their clash l was played at Boreham Wood in front of 1,406. “It’s an emotional thing for everyone to experience,” Wubben-Moy said on Sunday, talking as much about those who had pathed the way before.
Wubben-Moy and Beattie were outstanding, a generation apart but sharing the stage, denying Wolfsburg until the last. The German champions were the favourites here. They had the experience of this level and were close to full strength. They controlled their home leg, despite the 2-2 draw, and could have been out of sight before Arsenal’s comeback. At the Emirates, their possession in the opening exchanges reflected their confidence and, at least on paper, superiority.
On the face of it, most of what Arsenal have been through would be enough to consign any club to a season of downright misery, being robbed of Mead, Vivianne Miedema and Williamson to ACL injuries, their captain Kim Little as well, without Caitlin Foord here. Then losing Stina Blackstenius, the scorer of their first-half opener. Laura Wienrother, a substitute, was stretchered off - another terrible blow. Eidevall’s squad had already been pulled to its limits and the Arsenal manager would have every right to look up and just plead for the rain to stop pouring, just for a moment.
But yet again, this team stood up and refused to submit without a fight. They had overturned a 1-0 defeat to knock out Bayern Munich at the Emirates, then they were 2-0 down in Germany, then they were 4-3 down. In extra time, Bremer shattered the noise and a frenzied atmosphere - apart from the ripple of lime green in the far corner. Yet Katie McCabe, who didn’t stop all night, had kissed the crossbar with a drifting cross just moments before. That’s how close Arsenal came to their first Women’s Champions League final since 2007 and a date against Barcelona.
The Emirates itself was resplendent at kick-off, a sliver of the pitch on the far side covered in the golden sun of the first early evening of May, a blue sky backing the rolling wave of the top tier. And it was packed, row after row, tier after tier, a night that many had dreamed of when most others hadn’t dared. It was a wonderful sight and in its glow Arsenal were too. Wolfsburg were made to suffer to begin with, as much by the Emirates than by Arsenal. The Gunners didn’t have much possession but were dangerous without it.
It must be said that McCabe did not win the ball when sliding back on Lena Oberdorf, just as the Wolfsburg midfielder was opening up and pulling away. But from there McCabe got up, shifted it sideways to Lia Walti, who cut Wolfsburg apart with her through ball to Blackstenius. The Wolfsburg goalkeeper Merle Frohms and central defender Kathrin Hendrich, experienced Germany internationals both, melted into one. Blackstenius rolled the ball into the empty net and the Emirates erupted.
Arsenal, a goal up, then did something special: Jonas Eidevall’s side raised everything to another level - their aggression, their swagger, and their composure. Walti and Frida Maanum were magnificent in midfield: Maanum haring around and doing the work of two, Walti a level of class and composer above. There was Victoria Pelova dropping a shoulder and rolling an audacious nutmeg through the legs of Oberdorf - who was frankly having a terrible time. McCabe almost burst through, then Blackstenius again. Arsenal repeatedly ran at Wolfsburg and then chased them down with the same intensity.
If you could freeze time as an Arsenal fan, you would perhaps choose that moment - playing like this, here, in front of this crowd, in the semi-finals of the Champions League and the biggest occasion of the club’s history, without going into the heartbreak that would follow.
Wolfsburg equalised. After Jill Roord’s excellent strike against her former team from the edge of the box, Eidevall turned and asked for more, but Arsenal needed half time. Beattie was caught under a high ball, and then Rafaelle. Manuela Zinsberger and Catley bailed them out but Wolfsburg continued to be difficult. Svendis Jane Jonsdottir tall and rangy, excellent over both legs, ran through Nicole Maritz and McCabe but shot straight at Zinsberger.
Arsenal needed to go again and almost did - Blackstenius turning Maritz’s cross from the right past Frohms - another explosion, this time cut out by the offside flag. Wolfsburg, enjoying this now, raised it again Jonsdottir’s header was cleared off the line by McCabe, then Steph Catley had to be sharp as Felicitas Rauch cut through Arsenal from the right.
Popp was growing into it, sensing her moment, everywhere in a role that was as much force of nature than No 10. Suddenly, there she was, the corner from the right falling to her in a crowd of bodies. Svenja Huth could have finished it with a shot that flashed past the far post. Lina Hurtig came close for Arsenal in extra time - denied by Frohms, then Pauline Bremer pulled a shot narrowly wide from the angle. McCabe’s cross hit the bar. Arsenal were close to penalties, and who knows what else. But then Wubben-Moy was caught, Brand pounced, and an extraordinary season was denied its latest miracle.