Sometimes she’d saunter down the left touchline. Other times she’d be grafting in the midfield. Occasionally she’d try to referee. Then, suddenly, decisively, Alexandra Popp would pick her moments in the part of the pitch that matters most in these games; the penalty box.
She’d played her part in the 3-2 win on the night (5-4 on aggregate). But by the time Pauline Bremer slid in to put away the 119th minute winner, silence a packed Emirates Stadium and book Wolfsburg a meeting with Barcelona in the final in Eindhoven on June 3, Popp was running on empty.
“It was a very tough game after two weeks out with the injury and my body is a little bit done," she laughed to DW after the match. “But I'm feeling very proud and happy to go to the final with this team. We are very strong in such situations.”
News that the 32-year-old had been passed fit after missing the first leg of this seminfinal was as big a boost to Wolfsburg as it was a blow to Germany when she failed to recover for the Euros final a few miles up the road last year.
"We know how much Poppi helps us, even when it comes to us all going beyond our pain limits,” said defender Felicitas Rauch in the buildup. But Popp doesn’t just deal in inspiration and presence, she deals in goals and assists too.
Set pieces key for Wolfsburg
Picked by coach Tommy Stroot in a deeper role than usual, Popp still managed a smart, cushioned header for Jill Roord’s equalizer after Stina Blackstenius had put Arsenal ahead and a typical headed finish for a corner to put the Bundesliga champions 2-1 up. Both goals came from set pieces, something Bremer said the team focused on.
“It's a strength of ours,” she told DW. “We didn't have a corner last game [in the first leg] so we wanted to get into these positions and then we know we have people who can put the ball in good areas. And Poppi is, of course, really strong in the air. It was a brilliant goal from her.”
Even a team of Wolfsburg’s experience couldn’t stem the tide though. Just as in Germany in the first leg, they allowed Arsenal back into the game, with Jen Beattie sending an increasingly confident crowd of 60, 063 into raptures with a header of her own.
Beattie and Popp may have struggled to imagine such a thing when the pair faced each other at the same stage of this competition almost exactly a decade ago in front of 1,400 at nearby Borehamwood.
Wolfsburg won that tie, and Popp went on to win her first Champions League for the club a few weeks later. The German side won it again the following year, 2014, but haven’t done so since. They will be underdogs in Eindhoven. But, on the evidence of Monday, that seems to suit them.
As extra time ebbed away, darkness began to descend. Fans dotted phone torches around the stands, and penalties loomed ever closer in to view. Beattie was cramping up, or perhaps playing for time, with Wolfsburg in the ascendancy.
Popp’s forays forward were becoming less frequent, every sprint a chore. Then she took her turn to hit the turf, clutching her left leg. She was though, as Rauch knew she would be, prepared to play through the pain.
Squad depth makes the difference
Minutes later, it was Arsenal who were, in a figurative sense at least, on the floor. A mistake by Lotte Wubben-Moy allowed Jule Brand in. The substitute was composed and stroked a low ball across goal for fellow replacement Bremer to tap home. Fresh legs and a wise old head had made the difference.
The winner was proof that Wolfsburg are more than just their skipper, they’re a side of genuine quality and depth. Tommy Stroot has a physically imposing team who have the experience, resilience and quality to win games like this in several different ways.
As the final whistle blew to confirm a fourth final since that 2014 win, Wolfsburg’s bench players and staff headed for Popp. But she waved them away, clutching at her leg again. As players and staff danced joyously in front of a rapidly-emptying stadium, Popp stood alone for a moment, as if steeling herself to go through it all again.
She sat yards back from her teammates even as they headed for the pocket of fans wearing green in the corner of the stadium, and Bremer led a choreographed bouncing celebration. It seemed to be fatigue, rather than injury that kept her away.
After the Euros final, it’s hard not to hope that’s the case for the player so central to the hopes of club and country. She’ll certainly be there if there’s any way at all that she can. She may think her body is “done” for now, but she’ll be back.