Perhaps nobody sums up the fighting spirit of Arsenal better than Katie McCabe.
When the Gunners went 2-0 down 24 minutes into the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Wolfsburg, chances of a comeback were slim.
Four days after losing Leah Williamson to an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Arsenal’s squad was as thin as it has been all season. No Kim Little, no Beth Mead, no Vivianne Miedema, no Caitlin Foord.
Surely, there was no way back? Wrong. With McCabe wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of Little and Williamson, Arsenal fought their way back with sheer grit and determination.
Rafaelle’s header and Stina Blackstenius’ tap-in brought Arsenal level but it was McCabe who was everywhere, flying into tackles, blocks and running herself into the ground for her team.
Katie McCabe is ready to lead Arsenal out in their second-leg Champions League semi-final against Wolfsburg
McCabe (right) was at the centre of Arsenal's recent first-leg comeback draw in Germany
On Monday, McCabe will lead her team out in front of 60,000 fans at the Emirates for the second leg, with the hope of making a first final since 2007.
‘When you’re wearing an Arsenal shirt you need to be performing and you need to be stepping up,’ McCabe tells Mail Sport.
‘Unfortunately our captain and vice-captain have suffered long-term injuries, for me I’d rather them be on the pitch and them wearing the armband but for now it’s a privilege to lead a club like Arsenal out, especially in the semi-final of a Champions League.
‘I think the character we have in this team and the mentality to go and comeback, we’ve seen it a couple of times this season. We know we’ve got quality in our team and we know we can be difficult to beat but it was about remaining calm in that moment in Germany.
‘It was always going to be difficult, Wolfsburg are a fantastic footballing side and they’re going to give us a really tough test again.
‘We’ve got fantastic leaders all across the pitch, we’ve got players that are captains for their national teams in Walli (Lia Walti) and Rafa (Rafaelle), we’ve got leaders everywhere. You always feel that pressure to perform when you’re wearing an Arsenal shirt. I’m going to give all I can in the role and hopefully we can get a few nice results.’
That Arsenal are still in this Champions League tie despite their crippling injury crisis is somewhat remarkable but there is no doubt their title challenge has been significantly impacted by their number of absences.
‘Unfortunately for us there’s been three ACL’s this season,’ McCabe said. ‘We’ve had other players have longer muscular injuries as well, whether that’s at the start of the season or towards the end. It’s always difficult, no matter who the players are.
McCabe is currently deputising as Arsenal's stand-in captain
‘It’s hard going into the business end of the season without a chunk of players in the team with what they give on and off the pitch. But in saying that, we can’t dwell on that too much. We still have games in front of us, we still have trophies to compete for. We’ve got a lot of massive games.’
Williamson became the third Arsenal player to suffer an ACL injury when she was forced off in the 1-0 defeat by Manchester United after Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema were sidelined with the same issue at the end of last year. It is becoming a too often familiar tale in women’s football, with 25 percent of the nominees for last year’s Ballon d’Or sidelined by the injury.
‘I’m no medical specialist so I don’t know the ins and outs of what needs to be done. I do think there needs to be a lot more research going into it,’ McCabe says.
‘Having seen team-mates go through those ACL injuries and then Beth, Viv and Leah this season, it’s heart-breaking for the girls because you know how much they want to be on the pitch with us and competing for these trophies.
‘That’s from a club point of view but internationally as well, with Leah being captain of England and with Viv and Beth being key members of the Netherlands and England respectively, it’s heart-breaking to see them go through that.
‘They’re three unbelievable girls with fantastic mentalities and I know they’ll be driving each other on through their rehab journey. They’ve got this whole squad at Arsenal backing them as well.’
There was a fear that McCabe would join that long injury list when she limped out of the second leg of their quarter-final with Bayern Munich last month.
The Arsenal star was previously a doubt for the club's Champions League semi-final clashes
Injury to Leah Williamson (middle right) has meant McCabe now has a more important role to play in the team
The 27-year-old was seen in a protective boot and on crutches after the game but remarkably returned to score the winning goal in the 2-1 victory over Manchester City four days later.
‘I was in the doctor’s room at the Emirates and Jonas [Eidevall] came straight in after having a huddle with the girls. He asked how it was and I just said “I’ll be fit for Sunday”.
‘Did I think it was broken? Yes. Just because of the pain, I can take tackles and hits and stuff but the pain I hadn’t come across in a long time.
‘That was my only worry. I was confident I was fit, that’s why I said it to him, luckily all the scans came back clear and we were able to prioritise how to get me back on the pitch.’
McCabe four-day turnaround was helped by WHOOP, a wearable digital lifestyle coach and tracker, that helps aid and improve fitness, sleep and recovery.
McCabe used technology to help speed up her recovery to be fit for Arsenal's European tie
In the days after the game, McCabe priortised rest, recovery and sleep to ensure she was in the ‘green zone’ in time for the title clash with Manchester City.
‘When we pulled the data it was really interesting to see how the recovery built back up,’ McCabe said. ‘I prioritised sleep, the type of injury I had, I had to do a lot of hot and colder water compression, elevation. There was a lot to it which I was very strict on.
‘When we pulled the graph up you could see how I had built back up to the good recovery zone. I think without that data, I wouldn’t have anything to go off. It’s a big part of my performance.’
Tonight marks the first time the women’s team will play in front of a sold-out Emirates and McCabe believes the home support will have a significant role to play in getting them over the line.
Arsenal will attempt to reach their first Champions League final since 2007 in front of 60,000 fans at the Emirates on Monday
‘We’ve felt the support in previous games throughout the season, even the first one against Spurs - it was an incredible atmosphere that day. Chelsea at home as well, we’ve had numerous Champions League games there too.
‘For us, the Emirates is starting to feel like home. It’s a different type of feeling when you step out at the Emirates, especially coming into a Champions League semi-final and knowing you’re going to have 60,000 fans behind you, spurring you on.
‘You can’t beat that feeling. The fans know how important they are for us and how they carried us over the line in games before. We’re gonna need them, we’re gonna need them cheering loud and proud and hopefully we can put on a performance that will make them happy.’
Katie McCabe is a WHOOP ambassador, for more info visit https://www.whoop.com/
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