Arsenal's Biggest Ever Game? Gunners Prepare For Unique Semi-Final Sell-Out

The Champions League semi-final decider kicks off at 5:45pm
10:00, 01 May 2023

They have lost four of their best players. Arguably, they have lost their four very best. But the losses of Beth Mead, Vivianne Miedema, Leah Williamson and Kim Little have not stopped Arsenal from being 90 minutes away from a first Champions League final in 16 years ahead of Monday’s semi-final second leg against Wolfsburg.

It could barely be a bigger evening for women’s football in England. After Chelsea’s defeat to Barcelona over two legs, the country’s hopes of a finalist rely on the side many understandably thought had suffered at least two injury blows too many to compete. Having slipped outside the top three domestically, it made sense that the Gunners would fall away in Europe, right?

Wrong. Even when 2-0 down in the first leg at the Volkswagen Arena, Arsenal found a way back into the game. They had been second best in the opening half hour. They had given Wolfsburg far too much respect, inviting a talented home side onto them. Ewa Pajor had slotted the first goal in after exploiting a huge gap between Jen Beattie and Lotte Wubben-Moy, then Sveindis Jonsdottir had the formality of slamming the ball home after a horrific mix-up saw Raffaele’s sideways pass at the back escape Beattie.

This ought to have been one step too far for Jonas Eidevall’s side. And yet, even without their four long-term absentees plus Lina Hurtig and Caitlin Foord, they showed in the last 60 minutes in Germany that they have every chance of upsetting the odds and reaching the showpiece final in Eindhoven on June 3.

The fact that this might be Arsenal’s best route into the Champions League next season is lost on nobody. This is a time when English women’s football is as competitive as it has ever been, with Manchester United finally making the leap to become part of a true leading quartet rather than coming up short in the battle to join Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea as the game’s leading lights.

But that has seen the Gunners pay heavily for the losses of, in particular, Mead and Miedema, both of whom have been absent since before Christmas. Stina Blackstenius, the scorer of the equalising goal in Germany, has gradually reached her top level in the final third but for a while earlier in 2023 there was an understandable disconnect in the forward line without their two main attacking threats.

Now, though, they are primed. Lia Walti’s industriousness has been key, while Frida Maanum led by example in pushing the Gunners forward even at 2-0 down in the first leg. And if even one of Hurtig and Foord can make it to play some part at the Emirates then it will come as a huge boost.

And then there’s the X-factor provided by the crowd. For the very first time, Emirates Stadium will be packed to the rafters for a women’s encounter, and while it is an oft-disproven cliché that a full ground is worth a goal start to the home side, there should be an incredible feel-good factor helping the Gunners on Monday evening.

Not since Alex Scott’s sole goal in the competition’s ugly-duckling days of two-legged finals under the ‘Uefa Women’s Cup’ moniker have Arsenal been crowned Queens of Europe. That 1-0 aggregate win came against Umea in front of a combined 9,732 people over the two legs.

Now they will play in front of 60,000 in a home semi-final with the carrot of facing the mighty Barcelona in the decider in five weeks’ time. Injuries or no, this is arguably Arsenal’s biggest day in their European history.

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