By Richard Clarke in Alkmaar
An equaliser deep into injury time denied Arsenal all three points at AZ Alkmaar on Tuesday night but Arsène Wenger’s side still have control of Champions League Group H.
The visitors seemed in charge for much of this evening’s game. There was no sympathy for an AZ who had been stricken with financial problems in recent days.
Arsenal simply soaked up the passion exhibited by the home team and home crowd before exploiting the first real opening that came their way.
That came nine minutes before half-time when Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie set up Cesc Fabregas to slot home at the far post.
AZ kept battling but Arsenal seemed to have seen them off until the third minute of injury time when David Mendes da Silva volleyed home into the top corner after a ‘Hail Mary” free-kick was nodded down into his path.
It was a deep disappointment and ended Arsenal’s run of seven straight wins. They now only lead Group H by one point when, a couple of minutes earlier they seemed set to go five clear.
Still, despite what happened here, Wenger’s men are still heavy favourites to stay on top for the final three fixtures.
There were three changes from the side that had barged past Birmingham on Saturday. Having recovered from his ankle injury, Gael Clichy replaced Kieran Gibbs at left back.
Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky had both picked up knee problems in that game so Arshavin and Bacary Sagna came in with Emmanuel Eboue moving on to the right side of midfield to accommodate the French full back.
Yet again, Vito Mannone retained his place in goal while Manuel Almunia was on the bench.
A booming bassline from the PA did a great job of rousing the crowd before kick-off but, in truth, these are tough times for the Dutch champions. They had removed the logo of their sponsors, DSB Bank, for this game after they were declared bankrupt. It had been reported that founder Dirk Scheringa was going follow suit with DSB Beheer NV, the holding company which owns AZ. If that happened it was anticipated that the club could be put up for sale.
Banners proclaiming “We’ll never surrender”, “AZ forever”, “Resistance” and “Even without money Dirk is our hero” lined this compact, atmospheric stadium. If ever a set of supporters could win points for spirit, this was it.
However, on the pitch, it was much tougher. AZ were sixth in the Eredivisie and bottom of Group H. They needed an injection of points and money. The determination, it seemed, could look after itself.
The situation drove AZ forward in the opening stages. But, despite the roars of the crowd for even the most aimless ball forward, they produced nothing.
Arsenal had the strut of a side that had won its last seven games and were prepared to wait for their opportunity. One knocked in the eighth minute.
A flowing move saw Abou Diaby escape down the left and cross to the far post. Van Persie collected and slipped inside his marker to give himself time. In the end he may have had too much. When he eventually got his shot away it was straight at Sergio Romero and the keeper held on.
Until the 25th minute, AZ were smoke without fire. The first effort worthy of the name came when Mendes da Silva fed Mounir El Hamdaoui in the right-hand channel and the Moroccan striker fizzed a shot just over the bar.
However, almost immediately, Eboue stole the ball on the right and curled a cross to Arshavin at the far post. Typically he tried something ambitious and lifted his shot over the keeper towards the far corner from the acutest of angles. He so nearly pulled it off but the shot drifted on to the roof of the net.
The little Russian was at his impish best tonight and, almost inevitably, he created the opening goal. In the 36th minute, right back Niklas Moisander allowed a regulation square pass to bobble away from him midway inside the AZ half. Arshavin thieved the ball and released Van Persie, whose pass across the face of goal was tapped home at the far post by Fabregas.
The goal quietened the AZ crowd for the first time this evening. Van Persie nearly added another just before the interval when his vicious left-foot shot was deflected over the bar off the fists of keeper Romero.
The Dutchman seemed determined to punish his countrymen tonight. Nine minutes after half-time, Eboue won a free-kick 25 yards out and Van Persie’s left-footed curler brought a full-length save from Romero.
However, just when you thought AZ’s challenge was about to fade, they rallied. Clichy was booked for hauling down El Hamdaoui and then in the 71st minute an under-pressure Diaby nodded onto his own bar from a corner.
Yet, as the minutes ticked by, Arsenal re-asserted control once more and substitute Carlos Vela had claims for a penalty six minutes from time when he was brought down by Moussa Dembele.
Arshavin forced the best out of Romero at the death and, though AZ kept going, Arsenal looked to have held them at bay.
But then, in the 93rd minute, Arshavin fouled Moreno deep inside the AZ half. Stijn Schaars leathered the free-kick forward, Graziano Pelle nodded down and Mendes da Silva lashed home the volley.
This was a draw that felt like a defeat but fortunately it should not affect their chances of making the Knockout Stages.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Fabregas (C) Goal!
- Eboue 82
- van Persie 74 Yellow Card
- Ramsey 82
- Vela 74 Yellow Card
- Sergio Romero
- Kew Jaliens
- Simon Poulsen
- Hector Moreno
- Niklas Moisander 85
- Schaars (C)
- Brett Holman 73
- Mendes da Silva Goal!
- Martens 69
- Mounir El Hamdaoui
- Joey Didulica
- Nick van der Velden
- Lens 69
- Ragner Klavan
- Wernbloom 85
- Gill Swerts
- Graziano Pelle 73