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As Arsenal travelled to Bayern Munich looking to reach what used to be familiar ground in the Women’s Champions League, Jonas Eidevall did not need to look back far to remind his players how transformative victory can be. It has been 10 years since Arsenal, the only English team to win a European title, last reached the semi-finals. Progress now would be timely, and not just for Arsenal’s development under Eidevall. It would be a significant moment for English clubs in the Champions League, as well as the tournament as a whole.
Over the past four seasons, only six teams have reached the Champions League semi-finals: Lyon, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich and Chelsea. It is down to Arsenal defeating Bayern, or Roma stunning Barcelona, to change that line-up. That in itself is striking, given how long Arsenal were the standard bearers in women’s football in England, but in recent years it has been left to Chelsea to carry that charge amid an underperformance by Women’s Super League clubs in Europe.
The Champions League has felt like the final frontier, following England’s success on the international stage at last summer’s Euros, and there was a statement of intent as both Arsenal and Chelsea claimed eye-catching results in the group stages: Arsenal had their stunning annihilation of holders Lyon, the dominant force in this competition, while Chelsea won home and away against PSG, who have regularly pushed Lyon close both in France and in Europe.
For Arsenal, it wasn’t quite enough to suggest they were now contenders. Producing those results in the knockout stages is a different task, a fact Arsenal were reminded of last season as they were defeated by Wolfsburg on their previous visit to Germany in last season’s quarter-finals. Since beating Lyon, Arsenal have lost both Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema to season-ending knee injuries, then failed to strengthen in the January window, while the league title appears to have slipped away following a disastrous defeat to Manchester City last month.
But within Arsenal, there is hope that winning the Continental Cup against Chelsea and lifting their first trophy under Eidevall unlocks what is required to now reach the Champions League semi-finals. The Arsenal boss is talking to his players less before games, as there is greater understanding of the standards that are required. Kim Little’s performance in the Selhurst Park final was indicative of a core of players who are determined to step up when it counts. “I feel we know what to do,” Eidevall said.
Arsenal were knocked out by Wolfsburg in last season’s quarter-finals
Chelsea, too, will be aware of what is required as they travel to the record Champions League winners Lyon. With the exception of last season’s group-stage exit, Emma Hayes’ side have been knocking on the door of a first European title and have the potential to even declare themselves as favourites if they can eliminate the holders. Failure to get through to the semi-finals for the second consecutive year, even against a team of Lyon’s pedigree in this competition, would be below expectations.
Hayes was critical of Chelsea’s lack of intensity and desire in the Continental Cup final defeat to Arsenal, but such a rare slip of their winning drive was perhaps understandable given how the Blues have been in the domestic competitions in the past three seasons.
After winning seven of the past 10 trophies, it would make sense if their best performances are being reserved for the Champions League and what is the club’s last remaining hurdle. Chelsea may already boast the best attacking duo in the competition in Sam Kerr and Lauren James.
James starred as Chelsea defeated PSG 3-0 to finish top of Group A
The importance of still being alive in the Champions League is clear with the competition set for its biggest quarter-final stage yet. A year on from Barcelona playing Real Madrid in front of a record crowd at the Camp Nou, all eight quarter-final matches will be held in the clubs’ main stadiums for the first time. As Arsenal and Chelsea target progress next week they will do so at the Emirates and Stamford Bridge respectively. Roma, the only team left from Italy, will play at the Stadio Olimpico for the first time when they host Barcelona tonight.
But unpredictability will be just as key to the Women’s Champions League as it moves into a new phase – this is the last season where DAZN will show matches for free on YouTube – and a tournament that produces the same semi-finals year on year cannot be good for sustained growth and interest. If Arsenal and Roma fail in their bids to defeat Bayern and Barcelona, it would once again leave the same pool of clubs able to win the title – a situation that is also becoming glaringly obvious in the men’s Champions League.
Arsenal have already taken one significant step this season with their first trophy for four years. With the stakes higher now, ending their even longer wait for a Champions League semi-final appearance could have an even greater impact.
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