No Mead, no Miedema, no Williamson: Arsenal reaching the Women's Champions League final would be a miracle - but don't be shocked if it happens

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The Gunners have missed key players all season but have ended a four-year trophy drought and will reach the UWCL final if they win on Monday

When Arsenal visited two-time European champions Wolfsburg in the first leg of their Women's Champions League semi-final last weekend, they did so without Beth Mead, Vivianne Miedema, Leah Williamson, Kim Little, Caitlin Foord and Lina Hurtig.

Due to registration restrictions, the Gunners' bench featured only two senior outfield players, sat alongside two goalkeepers and four academy products - the latter group boasting just 61 minutes of senior competitive experience between them.

And, to make the situation even more complicated, Arsenal were 2-0 down inside 24 minutes.

But this is a team that has been defying the odds all season. They spent the first half of the campaign without their first-choice centre-back duo, Williamson and Rafaelle, but still managed to top a Champions League group that contained the eight-time European champions, Lyon.

The Gunners have been without Mead, the 2022 Ballon d'Or runner-up, and Miedema, the Women's Super League's all-time top scorer, since before Christmas. Yet, they would lift their first major trophy in four years in March, beating Chelsea 3-1 in the Continental Cup final despite conceding within the first 98 seconds.

So, when they went 2-0 down in Germany, they didn't fret. Instead, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and pulled the game back to secure a 2-2 result.

On Monday, they welcome Wolfsburg to the Emirates Stadium knowing that a win would take them into the Women's Champions League final for the first time since 2007.

With all the setbacks they've had, just how on earth do they keep doing it?

  1. Rebuilding the attack
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    Rebuilding the attack

    One of the biggest tasks Arsenal have faced has been rebuilding their attack.

    To lose Mead to an ACL injury in November was a huge blow, especially with the England forward at the peak of her powers. But to see Miedema suffer the same fate just a month later? Devastating. The two most crucial pieces to the Gunners' attack were suddenly out for the season.

    A frantic January transfer window saw the club fail in a world-record bid to bring in Manchester United striker Alessia Russo on deadline day - a move that was just never going to happen - but they did make an excellent signing in Victoria Pelova.

    With injuries to wingers Foord and Hurtig, Pelova has had to become an integral part of a new-look forward line very quickly and has done so extremely well, with her the best player on the pitch in the draw at Wolfsburg.

    Katie McCabe, a versatile option who can play at left-back or on either wing, has had to perform a new role, while Stina Blackstenius has carried the brunt of the goal-scoring burden through the middle. The Swede has had her critics, but her movement is excellent and her work rate cannot be faulted. Both of those strengths allowed her to tap in the crucial equaliser last week.

    With two teenage talents and NXGN 2022 finalists, Kathrine Kuhl and Gio, also rotating into that front three, it is a much different attack to the one Arsenal started the season with and, at times, that has showed.

    But the fact that the Gunners have scored 35 goals in their 16 games since Christmas is a testament to the way the team has adapted to such change.

  2. Stepping up at the back

    Stepping up at the back

    It's not just been the attack that has had to adapt. Arsenal have been hit by injuries to the back line all season long.

    Williamson and Rafaelle, the first-choice centre-back pairing at the start of the season, both missed several months each before Christmas. Left-back Steph Catley has been out for a spell recently, too, meaning McCabe has had to switch between attack and defence.

    Then, just days before the semi-final first leg in Wolfsburg, Williamson ruptured her ACL. It was an absolute hammer blow for the club, who had announced the end of captain and star midfielder Kim Little's season earlier that week.

    These absences have required others to step up. Jen Beattie, for example, started only her fourth game of the season in Germany, but was immense after an early error.

    Arsenal have often changed to a three-at-the-back set up, too, to deal with these injuries. It's not been easy to do. After all, it's a very different system to what Jonas Eidevall's team usually plays and it requires each player to assume a different role that they are not used to.

    But with injuries forcing the formation to be more common, the players have started to overcome some of the early challenges - and when they've struggled, like in the first half of that first leg with Wolfsburg, they've shown the character to bounce back.

  3. Using all their experience

    Using all their experience

    The injuries Arsenal have suffered have been to players with massive amounts of experience, too - the players you'd love to be able to look to during a huge game.

    Mead won the 2022 Euros at a sold-out Wembley Stadium last summer, as did Williamson. Miedema has also won a home Euros, in 2017, and played in a World Cup final. Rafaelle, meanwhile, captained Brazil to the Copa America title last year.

    Having won 21 trophies in four different countries, captain Little epitomises calmness and composure in the biggest moment. Hurtig has played in an Olympic final. Between them, Catley and Foord have come out on top in seven Championship games in Australia.

    It has forced the Gunners that have remained to draw on every bit of experience they have, and for new leaders to step up. That is where the qualities of someone like McCabe, the captain of Ireland, or midfielder Lia Walti, the Switzerland skipper, have really come in handy.

    Eidevall has even said that he has introduced Beattie, 143 times a Scotland international before her retirement in 2022, specifically for her experience at times.

  4. Pushing to the limit
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    Pushing to the limit

    But one of the most damning things about Arsenal's injury crisis has been a simple lack of numbers.

    That hasn't been helped by the inability to register all of their players for the Champions League. Only three new players could be added to the squad ahead of the knockout rounds, meaning teenager Gio and the experienced Jodie Taylor, signed in March until the end of the season, missed out.

    It has demanded more and more of players right at the end of an exhausting season, but they haven't shied away from that.

    Even in the defeat to Manchester United earlier this month, having lost Williamson to that massive injury only 11 minutes in, the players absolutely ran themselves into the ground to try and get the result.

    "They did everything I could ask them to do in a really, really tough game," Eidevall said after that match. "They stuck together, they stayed positive, they tried to find solutions, they tried to express themselves on the ball. They were there for each other.

    "I told them after [the win over Manchester City in early April] I was proud of them, maybe today I am even more proud of them, with the attitude they show. I tried to praise them as much as possible because that was how I felt."

    If Arsenal fall short in their bid to reach the Champions League final, the WSL title race or the battle for the European spots, it won't be for a lack of effort.

  5. Showing character

    Showing character

    Nothing was praised more after Arsenal's 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg last week than the Gunners' character.

    To be 2-0 down away from home against a team that has won 18 major trophies in the last decade - including two Champions League titles - and come back to draw, given their circumstances, was incredible.

    "We have kind of been in those situations a couple of times this year – against Man City, in the Conti Cup against Chelsea – and we have shown who we are as a team," McCabe, captain for the rest of the season, said afterwards.

    "We know we have the quality in the team to create goal-scoring opportunities. We didn’t let [going 2-0 down] affect us. We knew we had something in us and we showed that tonight.

    "To lose our captain and vice-captain in the space of a couple of days hurt us, but also it brings us together. We are out there, we are running for each other and we are doing it for the girls back home as well. They are a massive part of this Champions League journey and we just have to make sure we finish it off in the best way possible."

  6. Showing quality

    Showing quality

    It's not just about character though. As McCabe notes, Arsenal might be missing a whole host of star players, but they still have a lot of quality in the squad.

    The Irish international herself has a wand of a left foot that can make a difference in a game, while it was Pelova's playmaking that shone in the first leg. Blackstenius has produced goals in huge moments this season, while midfielder Frida Maanum has arguably been the Gunners' best player all year.

    Those qualities aren't limited to the forward areas, either.

    Centre-back Lotte Wubben-Moy played the stand-out pass for the equaliser in Germany, while Rafaelle scored the first goal with a thumping header after a pinpoint set piece delivery from Catley. The ability the defenders, and deep-lying midfielder Walti, have on the ball is absolutely excellent.

  7. One more win

    One more win

    Victory at the Emirates is all that Arsenal need now to reach the Women's Champions League final. It'll be their first appearance in the showpiece event since they won the trophy in 2007, when it was called the UEFA Women's Cup.

    The team has had some excellent outings at the stadium this season, including the 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of this competition that saw them overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit to make the last four.

    There will be a huge crowd there trying to help them get over the line, too, with the Emirates sold out.

    "I hope we can give them a really good game," Blackstenius said. "We have a lot to play for. To get this 2-2 was really important for us to come into that game with that confidence and belief to go to the final."

    One more win. That's all they need. Even if they don't get it, to have got to this point with the setbacks they have endured is remarkable in itself.

    But while it might seem easy to bet against a team as depleted as this Arsenal one, you certainly wouldn't given the resilience they've shown all season.