VAR steals the show as Arsenal bow out

The atmosphere ahead of kickoff at the Emirates Stadium was electric, as a sellout crowd poured through the turnstiles hoping to see the Gunners progress to the Champions League final for the first time in over a decade. Occasions like this are normally reserved for the men’s team, so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Martin Ødegaard leading the teams out – instead it would be Katie McCabe. For the first time ever, Arsenal Women had sold out the Emirates Stadium.

The mission was simple – turn momentum into a win. The Gunners found themselves trailing by two goals within thirty minutes in the first leg at VfL Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena, though a bullet header from Rafaelle on the stroke of half-time changed the game. Jonas Eidevall’s side fought back to clinch a draw, as Stina Blackstenius found the back of the net in the 69th minute.

It’s important to note that the away goals rule is no longer utilised, so if Monday’s game was level after ninety minutes, we’d be heading to extra time and potentially a penalty shootout. The Gunners have been practicing penalties ahead of this fixture – though I’d expect that the 60,000 fans inside the ground would want this wrapped up within ninety minutes.

With a roaring crowd behind them, would they be able to steal the show and progress to the final? After defeating Chelsea 2-1 on aggregate, an incredible Barcelona side await the winners of this tie, with the final to be played in Eindhoven on June 3. The Blaugrana have recently been crowned as domestic champions in Spain – winning all 26 of their league fixtures so far, boasting a staggering goal difference of 103.

ARS: Zinsberger; Wubben-Moy, Beattie, Rafaelle; Catley, Maanum, Wälti, Maritz; McCabe, Blackstenius, Pelova

WOB: Frohms; Rauch, Janssen, Hendrich, Wilms; Roord, Oberdorf; Jónsdóttir, Popp, Huth; Pajor

The mood quickly shifted in the Emirates though, as Lotte Wubben-Moy appeared to have handled the ball at the other end as Jónsdóttir surged through on goal. The referee headed to the pitch side monitor, and opted against awarding a penalty as the Icelandic attacking midfielder was offside in the buildup.

There was a promising breakthrough for the Gunners in the eighth minute though, as Victoria Pelova attempted to find Stina Blackstenius with a lobbed ball over the top – but Merle Frohms was able to win the race and beat the forward.

The Gunners took the lead in the 11th minute, and the Emirates Stadium exploded as Arsenal had taken pole position in the race to progress to the final. Some swift buildup play saw Stina Blackstenius race through on goal, and the forward danced past the defence to slot the ball into the back of the net. Yet another VAR check threatened to spoil Arsenal’s party, but the goal was given!

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McCabe was played through on goal by Victoria Pelova just moments later and looked set to double Arsenal’s lead, though she was dispossessed by Lynn Wilms. Still, the Gunners were undeterred in their search for a second goal that could put this tie to bed early on.

Yet another stunning chance fell to the hosts in the 17th minute, as Pelova wiggled free on the left flank, jinking past her marker before firing a shot on goal. That was cleared, and the rebounded effort was blazed well over the crossbar – though it had certainly been a promising start to the game by the Gunners.

Wolfsburg looked to be building confidence though, and Arsenal were forced to sit back in their own half as the game reached the twenty-minute mark. In truth, the German side weren’t really posing too much of a threat to Manuela Zinsberger between the sticks – and the ‘keeper looked set to spark a counterattack as Stina Blackstenius raced down the left flank. Ultimately though, she was dispossessed and the Gunners were back under pressure.

There was audible concern around the ground as Katie McCabe required medical attention – but thankfully, the skipper was able to continue. Arsenal’s injury woes this season have been well-documented, and quite frankly it’s hard to see how Jonas Eidevall could accommodate another absentee.

With her predatory instincts shining through, Stina Blackstenius looked to double her tally in the 29th minute. A corner was cleared well by Wolfsburg, but a block saw the ball diverted back to the striker who fired a shot off quickly. Merle Frohms was able to hold it though, and the German side still trailed by a single goal.

The hosts were forced to defend at the other end of the pitch though, as a flurry of chances presented themselves to Wolfsburg. The visitors couldn’t capitalise though, as Ewa Pajor skewed her effort. In front of the Clock End, Arsenal attacked once more as both Katie McCabe and Victoria Pelova looked to put the Wolfsburg defence under pressure – and that they did, as the Gunners won a corner. Steph Catley’s inswinging delivery was punched clear by Merle Frohms.

It had certainly been an end-to-end opening thirty-five minutes, and the chances didn’t stop there. Rafaelle picked out Catley with a superb ball over the top, but her cross to Stina Blackstinius was struck with far too much power – ultimately being cleared by Rauch.

Wolfsburg drew themselves level in the 41st minute though, with a super strike from Jill Roord wiggling through the crowded penalty area before settling in the bottom-right corner. Manuela Zinsberger had no chance of making the save – but this meant that the tie was well and truly back up for grabs.

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Desperate to restore their lead, Arsenal flung balls through to Stina Blackstenius at any given opportunity – though the majority were overhit and caught by Merle Frohms. With five minutes added on, there was plenty of time for either side to regain control of the match, and Wolfsburg looked set to do just that after a mistimed challenge from Rafaelle allowed the German side to break through on goal. Catley was able to recover in time, though.

There was to be one final chance of the first half for the Gunners, as a free-kick whipped in from a dangerous area was sent out for a corner. Wolfsburg did well to launch a counterattack from the delivery, though Manuela Zinsberger was able to claim the ball despite a series of less-than-convincing challenges as the Germans surged forward.

There was uproar though as the referee blew her whistle to signal the end of the half – as the Gunners had been awarded a free-kick following a challenge on Katie McCabe. However, they weren’t given the opportunity to take it – as Lina Lehtovaara signalled for both teams to head down the tunnel.

In a sense, this seemed to be a replica of the first leg – the home team had been dominant, but a late goal in the first half had completely shifted the momentum. Jill Roord’s strike against her former club will certainly have changed both managers’ team talks, but Jonas Eidevall’s Arsenal would look to take advantage of a buoyant crowd in the second half.

Stina Blackstenius got the game back underway for the second half, and within minutes the Gunners were back ahead! Stina Blackstenius netted her second of the game in the 47th minute, completing a beautiful passage of buildup play. However, there was yet another VAR check – and this time the goal was disallowed for offside.

The visitors were quick to surge forwards once more, and Alexandra Popp looked to launch a powerful effort from the edge of the box – that was claimed by Zinsberger though, who had done well to keep her side level. In truth, it had been a very fragmented affair since the restart, with neither side able to keep possession for long before a crunching tackle goes flying in.

There was yet another nailbiting moment in the 53rd minute, as an effort from the edge of the box appeared to bounce over Manuela Zinsberger as the ‘keeper came off her line. Thankfully for the Gunners, the shot was placed just wide of the post!

Minutes later, Rafaelle did well to perfectly time a challenge on Ewa Pajor as the Polish striker raced towards goal. The Brazilian replicated that move once more, sticking out a leg to divert the forward’s attempted cross out for a corner. The delivery looked to cause danger, with a low header at the back post cleared unconvincingly by the Gunners.

There was yet another chance for Wolfsburg though, as Noelle Maritz sent the ball behind for a corner. This time, the delivery was spot on – and Alexandra Popp was primed and ready to divert it into the back of the net on her return to the starting lineup. Arsenal would have to dig deep to taker anything from this tie, as they found themselves trailing with thirty minutes left to play.

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Steph Catley understood her task, and surged down the left flank before firing a cross towards Stina Blackstenius at the back post – but the forward wasn’t quite able to tip it into the back of the net. Maanum was the next to threaten Merle Frohms, though the ‘keeper was able to catch her long-range strike quite comfortably.

Huth looked set to extend Wolfsburg’s advantage in the 69th minute, as she was played through on the right flank, skipping past a defender before dragging her shot across the face of goal. That should have been a huge sigh of relief for Zinsberger, but the ‘keeper appeared to have twisted awkwardly and required medical attention. She was fine to continue though.

Lotte Wubben-Moy made potentially one of the biggest blocks of her career soon after, recovering incredibly well to put in a perfectly-timed challenge on Ewa Pajor. The Polish forward was through on goal, and looked set to add to Wolfsburg’s advantage until the challenge was made.

With time running out, Arsenal won a free-kick in a dangerous area. The initial delivery flew over the crowded box, but Lotte Wubben-Moy was able to swing it back in. Her cross met the head of Jen Beattie, who rose highest to divert it into the back of the net and bring the Gunners level with fifteen minutes left to play. Sensationally though, there was to be another VAR check – and fan frustration was evidently boiling over. It seemed as if everything had gone to the video assistant referee, and that’s an unwanted distraction given the significance of this tie. The fans wouldn’t mind too much this time though, as the goal was given!

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It wasn’t all good news though, as moments later Laura Wienroither was carried off on a stretcher in the 82nd minute. The defender had been introduced less than twenty minutes earlier, but she looked in pain as she was stretchered down the tunnel. Kathrine Kühl was chosen as her replacement.

Time was well and truly running out, but the Gunners won a corner in the 89th minute. It could have been a great opportunity to put the game to bed, but the delivery was cleared by the Wolfsburg defence. With seven minutes of injury time to play, it was likely there’d be a few more chances for either side before the impending extra time arrived.

Wolfsburg won a corner deep into stoppage time, but Rauch’s delivery was headed behind for a goal-kick to ease the pressure on the Arsenal defence. Jónsdóttir looked to cause danger from the right flank though, but her cross into the box was claimed well by Manuela Zinsberger – who deserves an awful lot of praise for her performance tonight. That was the last real chance of the ninety minutes, but with extra time – and potentially penalties – still to come, it would be far from the end of the action.

Attacking the famous Clock End for the second time, Arsenal looked to be through on goal as a fantastic diagonal ball found Steph Catley on the left flank. She opted to slow the play down though, allowing the Gunners time to get bodies forward.

Wolfsburg seemed sure to score in the sixth minute of extra time, as Manuela Zinsberger was forced into action once more. The game’s end-to-end nature was still prevalent, and it was the Gunners that fashioned the next chance as Lotte Wubben-Moy sought to find Lina Hurtig – but the Swede was bullied off the ball by the visiting defence.

Frida Maanum did well to break free on the right flank seconds later, beating her defender before curling a ball towards the feet of Hurtig – and this time the forward managed to get a shot off, but it was saved well by Merle Frohms. Arsenal looked to recycle the chance and ultimately won a corner, which was sent over the line after a goalmouth scramble – but it was disallowed as Hendrich had gone to ground.

That was the only real chance of note in the first half of extra time, and both sides would have to be quick off the blocks in the final fifteen minutes if they were to avoid a penalty shootout. Frida Maanum made a dash for it on the right flank and skipped over a number of challenges, but her cross was ultimately sent well wide.

Pelova looked to create a golden chance as she avoided every challenge in midfield before laying it off to Maanum on her right, but her shot was sent well over the crossbar without ever coming close to threatening Merle Frohms.

Lia Wälti was forced to the ground inside the box in the 22nd minute of extra time as Wolfsburg looked to restore their lead, though the referee failed to stop play. Thankfully, Brand placed her effort wide of the post – or we could have been heading to yet another VAR check.

The Gunners were awarded a free-kick on the right flank after a poor challenge by Rauch, though the delivery was headed away by the Wolfsburg defence. Katie McCabe picked it up on the left flank, driving towards goal before unleashing a thunderous effort that ricocheted off the crossbar! If they could keep this positive momentum going, Arsenal could well nick a late winner.

Rafaelle was called into action once more to deny Hegering, who looked set to break through on goal – but the Brazilian remained rock solid at the back once more. In a sign of desperation, Jill Roord hoped to bag her second of the evening as she drove a shot from distance. It was a rather tame strike though, and Zinsberger was able to save comfortably.

With less than two minutes on the clock, Wolfsburg returned to the lead – capitalising on a switched-off Arsenal defence. Bremer was in the perfect position to place the ball in the back of the net, after Jule Brand’s delivery into the box.

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Jonas Eidevall’s team delivered a spirited performance, but the Gunners crumbled deep in extra time as Pauline Bremer hauled the ball over the line to put Wolfsburg ahead. It’s Tommy Stroot’s side who will be heading to Eindhoven, as they can now turn their attention to next month’s final against Barcelona.

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