By Richard Clarke
A missed penalty on the stroke of half time cost Arsenal the chance to finish Champions League Group B with six wins out of six at Highbury on Wednesday night.
With top spot already assured, Arsène Wenger sent out a much-changed, youthful side against Ajax. They struggled for cohesion throughout but were handed the perfect opportunity in injury time before the interval when Jose Antonio Reyes was fouled in the area.
Thierry Henry sent Ajax keeper Maarten Stekelenburg the wrong way but his effort went wide. An incredible miss from probably the world’s greatest striker.
In truth, this game barely got off the ground and a goalless draw was just about fair. Ajax will argue they had more possession but then Arsenal had the better opportunities. Both sides had little to play for and, in all honesty, it showed.
Still, no matter. There will be much greater nights at Highbury in this competition this season, starting with the Knockout Round at the end of February
Before kick-off Wenger said he would rest Jens Lehmann, Gilberto, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Sol Campbell. In addition Pascal Cygan and Dennis Bergkamp had slight knocks while Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy had more serious injuries.
With all those changes, it is probably easiest to name the players in formation. Here goes:
Defence (right to left): Eboue, Toure, Senderos, Lauren.
Midfield: Hleb, Larsson, Flamini, Reyes
Attack: Quincy, Henry.
The notable factors were these: Alexander Hleb was returning from nine weeks out with a knee injury, Seb Larsson was making his first start for the Club aside from Carling Cup ties and Lauren was covering the ‘problem position’ at left back.
It was scrappy and disjointed opening. Understandably Arsenal’s unfamiliar side lacked fluency and Ajax were only marginally the better side in the opening quarter of an hour. The driving rain did not help either.
The nearest we got to a goal was Nourdin Boukhari’s fierce-looking shot from the edge of the area. It was blocked before it could really trouble Manuel Almunia.
However the keeper had to be alert a few minutes later to deny Markus Rosenberg just inside the area and the Swedish striker broke clear.
By that time, Ajax had lost Zdenek Grygera, presumably to injury. Hatem Trabelsi, a former Arsenal target, came on at right back with Johnny Heitinga switching to centre half. Before the half-hour Hedwiges Maduro had also limped off with the highly-rated Nigel de Jong coming on.
Arsenal had created precisely nothing so far but they were nearly handed the lead 10 minutes from the break. Juanfran’s clearance from left back ricocheted kindly off Quincy and, with Henry was unmarked in the centre, the crowd sensed a chance. However the Dutchman’s cross was rushed and wayward. A few minutes Quincy did have a sniff of goal himself but his shot was tame.
Suddenly half-chances were starting to appear. Larsson volleyed wide from Henry’s cross and Mathieu Flamini’s effort was scrambled past the post.
Better was to come. Senderos strode forward and fed Henry who found Quincy in the corner of the area. The 19-year-old’s drive was batted out by Stekelenberg to Reyes and the Spaniard’s first-time volley flew over.
We were deep into the injury time when the penalty came...
...and then went.
Ajax nearly punished Arsenal 10 minutes into the second half. Steven Pienaar scuttled through but Almunia rushed out to block with his body. In any case, the assistant referee had flagged for offside.
Just after that, Heitinga brought down Reyes as the striker raced through. The defender got a booking, the 22-year-old got a knock he could not shake off. He made way for Van Persie with 25 minutes left.
Still Ajax had more of the ball but when Fabregas flashed a header just wide it represented the closest legal chance of the half.
With nine minutes left, Van Persie conjured up probably the best moment of the night. He weaved his way through two defenders before forcing Stekelenburg to save with this feet.
Ajax went straight up the other end and an attempted clearance by Senderos went straight to Rosenberg who thumped a shot over the bar from six yards when he should have scored.
In the final two minutes, De Jong’s long range drive forced Almunia to dive full length and tip the ball around the corner.
But it seemed to be a night when we were never destined to see a goal.
- Lauren 72
- Hleb 62 Yellow Card
- Flamini Yellow Card
- Reyes 65
- Gilbert 72
- Fabregas 62
- van Persie 65
- Grygera 14
- Maduro 29
- Heitinga Yellow Card
- Boukhari 75
- Trabelsi 14
- De Jong 29
- Babel 75