In November, Arsenal’s 100 per cent record disappeared to Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium with Beth Mead laid prostrate on the touchline for the final few minutes of the 3-2 defeat. The loss of the England superstar to cruciate ligament damage felt like the more lasting issue, her season over and her chances of making this summer’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand slashed.
Moments after the full-time whistle, Mead’s partner and fellow forward Vivianne Miedema was spotted by TV cameras receiving the message that it was bad news, turning to team-mate Jen Beattie to tell her “Beth’s done her cruciate.” Just three weeks later Miedema would be feeling the same intense agony.
The Dutchwoman was stretchered off just before half-time in the 1-0 Champions League loss to Lyon with an ACL rupture of her own. As Miedema laid prone on the makeshift gurney and sobbed, Mead was to be found propped up on crutches on the Emirates touchline with anguish written across her face.
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Even two months on from Miedema’s devastating injury, and almost three months following Mead’s, Arsenal are yet to recover. Sure, they stuck nine past Zurich in their final Champions League group fixture and then repeated the feat against Leeds United in the FA Women’s Cup. But in the Women’s Super League they have been sadly lacking the firepower that the Euro 2022 Player of the Tournament winner and the 95-goal Netherlands international are normally able to provide.
After Mead’s injury, Arsenal initially did ok. They beat Everton thanks to a sole Miedema goal, then were big winners at Aston Villa with the number 11 again on the scoresheet. But since Miedema herself has been ruled out, the Gunners haven’t been nearly as fearsome in attack.
They dominated long spells of the top-of-the-table battle with Chelsea in N7 but failed to put the champions away, with only Kim Little’s penalty to show for their superiority until Sam Kerr’s late equaliser spoiled their day. And at the weekend they went to West Ham United and peppered the Hammers’ goal with 21 shots but again couldn’t find the cutting edge, drawing 0-0 and dropping further precious points in the title race.
On Wednesday night they host Manchester City at Meadow Park in the Continental Cup semi-final knowing that this game will serve as a dress rehearsal for Saturday’s crunch league meeting between the pair at the City Academy Stadium. And the last thing they need is more blanks being fired in the final third.
Now is the time for them to show that they have strength in depth rather than just depth. Stina Blackstenius is their joint-top scorer in the league this season with four goals but her last strike against WSL opposition came at bottom club Leicester City in early November. Caitlin Foord scored doubles away to both Lyon and Zurich in the Champions League but has just one league goal to her name. With those two struggling, there will also now be a greater emphasis on Lina Hurtig scoring goals in her new-found prominence in the first XI. There's no wonder Arsenal went big when offering a world-record fee for Manchester United striker Alessia Russo.
Wednesday’s game may not be a WSL fixture, but it is a chance to reach a major final in a competition which Arsenal once made their own. They have reached eight of the previous 11 League Cup finals, winning a record five, but their last success was five years ago now and a club looking short on confidence could do with the huge fillip of scrawling a big date on the calendar.
And if they can get a couple of monkeys off their backs in front of goal it could help to tee them up for a trip to City on Saturday which bears all the hallmarks of being the acid test in Arsenal’s ever-decreasing hopes of securing a first league title in four years.
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