There is scarcely a harder sequence of fixtures in world football. Tottenham, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Manchester United. All in the space of three season-defining weeks.
That’s the task ahead of Arsenal Women. A cluster of games that will spell out the terms of their campaign.
Will it be one that is celebrated with a League Cup trophy in the cabinet, and a run at honours in two further competitions? Or one of those nearly-but-not-quite kind of years – the sort that only get remembered in brief.
The kind that includes fleeting moments of joy and jubilation but ultimately ends in disappointment, like a 110m hurdler who clears the first eight barriers but collides with the final two.
The Gunners’ season is finely poised. In many ways they’re down, but certainly not out. They will need to chase a one-goal deficit in the second leg of their Champions League meeting with Bayern next week, while also maintaining domestic ambitions by keeping pace with the Women’s Super League elite. Not easy.
Jonas Eidevall’s squad has been stretched this term, owing to season-ending injuries to both Beth Mead and Viv Miedema around Christmas. Such rotten luck has the potential to derail an entire operation in a heartbeat, but absence doubles as opportunity in football. “We miss them; they are a big loss,” fellow forward Stina Blackstenius told Sky Sports in an exclusive chat at Arsenal’s rain-soaked training base, having just come in from a particularly damp outdoor session.
“It’s like this in Sweden,” she remarked as she took her seat, as if to establish common ground. The striker is well-versed in crummy weather, the kind that all English natives are accustomed to. “We got soaked this morning,” she added, smiling, before leaning back in a relaxed manner as if to signal a readiness to tackle any question – weather-related or otherwise – head on.
The chat started with Tuesday’s trip to Munich. In some ways, a representation of Arsenal’s season – packed to the rafters with industry and endeavour, if lacking a little in end product. “It was frustrating because we didn’t get the result we wanted,” Blackstenius admitted, “but we also have in mind we have everything to play for,” she added swiftly in the next breath.
“We know we can turn the result around. We had a good second half in Germany and I think there is a lot of good stuff we can bring to next week’s game. We had a few chances and need to be more clinical. We feel like we deserved a goal. But in these games opportunities are rare and we need to be finishing them off. We have a strong mentality, and we know we can score goals.”
Blackstenius herself takes pressure in her stride. The expectation to score goals comes with the territory, she acknowledges, but far from letting the pressure engulf her, she tries to put the “responsibility” – as she terms it – to good use.
“As a striker you always want to score. From the outside, everyone is looking on you to score. It’s easy to get in a mindset where you feel pressure, but I focus on my game. I know that I can bring more to this team than just goals, but I also know that is my job. As a striker, I want to be a part of the whole game – I want to help my team-mates defend, I want to create chances. You always have pressure, it’s just about how you handle it. Ultimately, if we win the game, I’m so happy.”
Winning is exactly what needs to happen from here – and nothing less. Arsenal are not the frontrunners. They need to come from behind if they have designs on more than one winner’s medal this season. They have a five-point shortfall to make up in the league, which, at this point in the season, might well be insurmountable. But that isn’t how Blackstenius sees it – that isn’t how Arsenal operate.
“It’s so much about confidence,” she continued. “There are a lot of games still to play and everything is possible. Until then we need to do our job and collect as many points as we can. I don’t want to say we’re out of the race because we have in mind that anything can happen. We can’t stop believing. It’s necessary and important that we still have belief.
“It’s a tough schedule but it’s these games that we play for. We really need to be at our best and that’s exciting. We were really happy about the [League Cup] title – I was happy to win a first trophy for Arsenal. But it makes us strive to win more. We’re growing in confidence as a team. It makes us stronger to know what we’re capable of and also makes us believe we can achieve a lot when we’re at our best, that’s what it takes. You saw against Chelsea how good we can be at our best.”
The Gunners are dangerous, and fortunes are changeable. Blackstenius demonstrated as much when side-footing through the legs of Mille Bright and beyond the clutches of Ann-Katrin Berger to level the Conti Cup final against the Blues a few weeks back – a tie Arsenal dominated from that moment onwards. Blackstenius set the tone, ushering in the kind of rampant performance fans had become accustomed to when Mead and Miedema were available. The outcome, more than being deserved, has had an uplifting effect.
“I felt like we needed it,” Blackstenius reflected. “We showed ourselves. It’s hard being on that level all the time but we know that’s the level we can play at. We shouldn’t settle for less. We have to strive to be consistent in that way. It was a really nice way of showing what we are capable of. Lifting the trophy and celebrating something together means something, after such a strong performance.”
This weekend the requirement is no different, but perhaps the stakes are higher. “It’s a huge game,” Blackstenius said, the second the conversation pivoted to the prospect of Saturday’s north London derby, live on Sky Sports. The mood, relaxed before, turned somewhat more serious.
“It’s a big one. We had such a great experience at the Emirates the last time we played Tottenham, with all our fans – a record crowd. I know how much it means for our fans so it’s something we look forward to. We’re excited. Three points is what is needed.
“It means a lot to play in these games. It creates this extra spark. You can feel it in the atmosphere. Derbies are special, no matter where you are, but since I came here I’ve seen it from a different perspective. It’s so much bigger than I maybe thought, 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 contested in WSL history, with Spurs yet to win a game. Indeed, while the overall picture, in league terms, perhaps favours rival clubs, this fixture is controlled and ruled by the red half of north London.
“We have had nice experiences against Spurs,” Blackstenius summarised. “You can tell how much it means to beat them. It’s just different, in a really special way.”
Watch Tottenham vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Football on Saturday from 2.30pm; kick-off 3pm