After just 24 minutes, Arsenal were dejected as well as depleted. Conceding the opening goal in Wolfsburg was not a disaster but what followed threatened to be. Within moments, Arsenal gifted Wolfsburg a second: a mix-up between Rafaelle and Jen Beattie in defence allowed Sveindiis Jane Jonsdottir to double her side’s lead and with it, take full control of this Champions League semi-final.
Given the circumstances, Arsenal could have crumbled. Instead, they produced a magnificent comeback of grit, spirit and resolve. Rafaelle’s vital header before the break restored hope and Jonas Eidevall’s side were excellent in the second half, sticking to their principles despite the key players they are missing. This was a result owed to those who remained.
If Leah Williamson’s devastating absence was initially highlighted by Rafaelle and Beattie’s earlier mistake, the England captain’s replacement Lotte Wubben-Moy then produced the defence-splitting ball that led to Stina Blackstenius’ equaliser. Beattie and Rafaelle were otherwise excellent after Arsenal’s poor start. In front of them, Frida Maanum again stepped up without Kim Little alongside her. In Wolfsburg, Blackstenius scored the second goal that appeared beyond Arsenal without Beth Mead, Vivianne Miedema and Caitlin Foord.
They will return to the Emirates and a record home crowd confident of their chances of reaching the Eindhoven final. In the quarter-finals, Arsenal overturned a 1-0 defeat in the first leg to Bayern Munich, but given the hand they are playing with it felt like they needed to take something back here. If that looked unlikely when the striker Ewa Pajor opened the scoring, it looked unthinkable after Jonsdottir bundled in a second five minutes later.
Arsenal could not afford to be so generous but their resilience was impressive. Maanum has been the player who has responded at each stage of Arsenal’s squad being stretched; first as Eidevell lost Mead and Miedema, now when it’s even harder without Williamson and Little. But it was the Norwegian’s touch and turn that forced Merle Frohms into her first save at the near post and from there, Arsenal equalised. Steph Catley lofted the resulting corner to the far post, where Rafaelle pulled one back.
Maanum, Katie McCabe and Blackstenius took turns to raid into the Wolfsburg half. McCabe was next. Arsenal worked it back and Wubben-Moy’s stunning pass found Victoria Pelova, who squared to Blackstenius for a simple tap-in. Arsenal could have been hesitant in possession after the manner in which they conceded but their comeback was built on their control, which restricted Wolfsburg to few second-half chances. Tabea Wassmuth lifted the best of them over the bar, while Jill Roord rolled a shot just past the post.
If Wolfsburg could bring on an option of the quality of Wassmuth, the sight of Arsenal’s bench was the result of a squad decimated by injuries. The defender Laura Wienroither was the only senior player on a substitutes list that included two goalkeepers and five teenagers with just one start in this season’s Women’s Super League between them. Yet Arsenal got through it, and will hope to be stronger next week with the return of Foord.
Remaining in the tie looked beyond them when Pajor, the leading scorer in this season’s Champions League, struck her eighth goal in nine games with a low finish past Manuela Zinsberger. It was too easy for Wolsfburg and they cut Arsenal open after finding the angled run of Jonsdottir, who slipped Pajor through. Woflsburg’s second looked certain to be the catastrophic moment where the semi-final slipped beyond Arsenal’s reach. Instead, they will return to the Emirates fired up for the biggest night in the team’s history.