There is hardly a harder game sequence in world football. Tottenham, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Manchester United. And all of this within three season-defining weeks.
That is the task before Arsenal women. A group of games that spell out the terms of their campaign.
Will it be one celebrated with a League Cup trophy in Cabinet and a run for honors in two other competitions? Or one of those almost-but-not-quite-years—the kind you only briefly remember.
The kind that involves fleeting moments of joy and exultation but ultimately ends in disappointment, like a 110-meter hurdler clearing the first eight barriers but colliding with the last two.
Saturday, March 25, 2:00 p.m
Kick-off 3:00 p.m
The Gunners season is well balanced. In many ways they’re down, but they’re certainly not out. They must hunt down a one-goal deficit in the second leg of their Champions League clash with Bayern next week while maintaining their domestic ambitions by keeping up with the elite of the Women’s Super League. Not easy.
Jonas Eidevall’s squad was expanded this season due to season-ending injuries to Beth Mead and Viv Miedema around Christmas. Such bad luck has the potential to derail an entire operation in the blink of an eye, but absence is also an opportunity in football. “We miss them, they are a big loss,” said striker Stina Blackstenius Sky Sports in an exclusive chat at Arsenal’s rain-soaked training base, having just returned from a particularly wet outdoor session.
“That’s how it is in Sweden,” she remarked as she took a seat, as if wanting to create common ground. The striker knows bad weather, as all Englishmen are used to. “We’re soaked this morning,” she added, smiling, before relaxing in a relaxed position, as if to signal her willingness to tackle any question – weather-related or not – head-on.
The chat started with the trip to Munich on Tuesday. A representation of Arsenal’s season in a way – packed with diligence and effort, if a little on the final product. “It was frustrating because we didn’t get the result we wanted,” admitted Blackstenius, “but we also have in mind that we can play for anything,” she quickly added in the next breath.
“We know we can turn the tide. We had a good second half in Germany and I think there are a lot of good things we can bring to next week’s game. We had a couple of chances and we need to sober up. We feel like we deserve a goal. But in these games, opportunities are rare and we have to take them. We have a strong mentality and we know we can score goals.”
Blackstenius himself accepts the pressure. The expectation of scoring goals is part of the territory, she admits, but she doesn’t let herself be pressured and instead tries to use what she calls “responsibility” wisely.
“As a striker, you always want to score. From the outside, everyone is looking for you to score. It’s easy to get into a mindset where you feel pressure, but I’m focused on my game. I know I can contribute more can.” team than just goals, but I also know that it’s my job. As a striker, I want to be part of the whole game – I want to help my teammates defend, I want to create chances. There’s always pressure, it’s all about how you deal with it. Ultimately, I’m so happy when we win the game.”
Winning is what needs to happen from here – nothing less. Arsenal are not the front runners. They’ll have to come from behind if they draft more than one winner’s medal this season. They have a five-point deficit in the league to close that may be insurmountable at this point in the season. But that’s not how Blackstenius sees it – that’s not how Arsenal work.
“It’s so much about confidence,” she continued. “There are still a lot of games to play and anything is possible. Until then we have to do our job and get as many points as possible. I don’t want to say that we’re out of the race because we’re in.” Remember that anything can happen. We can’t stop believing. It is necessary and important that we still believe.
“It’s a tough schedule but it’s those games that we play for. We really have to do our best and that’s exciting. We were very happy about it [League Cup] Title – I was happy to win a first trophy for Arsenal. But it makes us strive to win more. We’re gaining confidence as a team. It makes us stronger in knowing what we’re capable of and also makes us believe that we can achieve a lot if we’re at our best, that’s what it takes. They saw against Chelsea how good we can be at our best.”
The Gunners are dangerous, and fortunes are fickle. Blackstenius demonstrated this when he passed through the legs of Mille Bright and over the claws of Ann-Katrin Berger a few weeks ago to level the Conti Cup final against the Blues – a draw Arsenal have dominated from that moment on. Blackstenius set the tone and ushered in the kind of rampant performance fans had become accustomed to when Mead and Miedema were available. The result was more than deserved and had an uplifting effect.
“I felt we needed it,” Blackstenius mused. “We showed ourselves. It’s hard to be at this level all the time, but we know we can play at this level. We shouldn’t settle for less. We have to try to be consistent in that way stay. It was a really nice way to show what we can do. To lift the trophy and celebrate together means something after such a strong performance.”
This weekend the demands are no different, but maybe the stakes are higher. “It’s a huge game,” Blackstenius said live as the conversation turned to the prospect of Saturday’s north London derby in the second Sky Sports. The previously relaxed atmosphere became a little more serious.
“It’s a big deal. We had such a great experience at the Emirates last time we played Tottenham, with all our fans – a record crowd. I know how much it means to our fans so we’re delighted on it. We’re excited. Three points is what’s needed.
“It means a lot to play in these games. It gives that extra spark. You can feel that in the atmosphere. Derbies are special no matter where you are, but since I’ve been here I see it from a different perspective.” It’s so much bigger than I might have thought it would be in a good way. It’s amazing because it brings the fans together and we want to play for them and with them. We play this game as one club.”
This will be the seventh North London derby in WSL history without Spurs winning a game. While the bigger picture in the league may favor opposing clubs, this game is controlled and ruled by the north London red half.
“We had good experiences against the Spurs,” summed up Blackstenius. “You realize how much it means to beat them. It’s just different, in a very special way.”
Watch Tottenham vs Arsenal live Sky Sports Football on Saturday from 2.30 p.m.; Kick-off 3 p.m