By Tom Bennett in Spain
Arsenal Ladies secured a valuable 1-1 draw at Superliga champions Rayo Vallecano on Thursday night in the first leg of their Round of 16 Champions League tie.
Kim Little put the Gunners ahead after just three minutes, and although Rayo pulled level through captain Natalya on the half-hour mark, Laura Harvey's side fly back to London well placed for the return leg next Wednesday at Boreham Wood FC.
On a wet night at the Ciudad Deportiva Fundacion, Arsenal carved out more than enough chances to win the game, managing eight shots on target to their opponents' two.
Danielle Carter and Jayne Ludlow were both denied at point-blank range by the superb reflexes of Alicia in the Vallecano goal. Ellen White was also twice frustrated by the Rayo No. 1, and Niamh Fahey, Katie Chapman and Rachel Yankey all came close to providing the Gunners with victory.
Although there may be some frustration in the Arsenal camp that the chances created did not translate more easily into goals, much confidence will be taken from the draw, and the manner in which they dominated large swathes of the game.
Harvey's team suffered a 2-0 away defeat to the Spanish side at the same stage of the competition last year, and had to rely on an injury-time goal from Chapman to clinch progress to the Quarter-Finals 4-3 on aggregate in the second leg. A draw and an away goal this time around ensures they return to London on much firmer ground.
Certainly Arsenal started the Madrid-based match better on this occasion. A 35-yard strike from Natalya in the opening seconds had laid the foundations of a difficult night for Harvey last term. But on Thursday, Arsenal turned the tables with an early goal of their own. Just three minutes were on the clock when White picked up the ball on the right-hand flank, bombed forward and slipped the ball into Little to smash past Alicia from close range.
It was never going to be easy against a team enjoying their third consecutive campaign in Europe's premier women's competition, and Rayo rallied quickly.
They would have levelled after quarter of an hour, when Garcia played in captain Natalya, had not Emma Byrne saved smartly with her legs, and the Spaniards worked hard to limit further damage from the visiting side.
Arsenal pushed for more and came close to stretching their lead to two. With 18 minutes gone, Yankey curled in a free kick from the right, White jumped highest and connected well but her header flashed just wide of the right-hand post.
After half an hour though, a probing through-ball split Arsenal's back line, putting Natalya through for her second one-on-one of the match. This time the talismanic captain, who has five goals to her name in this year's competition already, made no mistake, coolly slotting past Byrne for the equaliser.
Unperturbed, Harvey's team went on the attack once more and, were it not for the heroics of Alicia, would have been two clear by the break.
First Carter was denied when she latched onto a low cross from Yankey from the left-hand side, poking it to the right of the Rayo No. 1 only for the keeper to lunge across and block at point-blank range.
Then Ludlow was somehow repelled from six yards out by another terrific stop.
With both sides battling to contain the other at the start of the second half, chances were initially scarce.
Arsenal gradually took charge of the game though, and from the hour mark were firmly on top. The pressure produced a string of chances.
On 70 minutes the ever energetic Little jinked past two Rayo defenders and squared to Fahey, whose side-footed shot drifted agonisingly clear of the bar.
Next White came close, twice breaking through the Rayo defence, but the England striker was thwarted by the Rayo keeper on both occasions. Her first attempt cannoned off the legs of Alicia, and the second was smothered.
There was more to come, with Chapman hooking wide from a lofted Steph Houghton free-kick, while Yankey fizzed a shot from range just over.
Rayo provided a reminder of the threat they posed with ten minutes to play, when a neat one-two saw Saray Garcia get in behind the Arsenal defence. Her shot flashed just past the far post, marking the last significant action of the match.
One-all it finished, with the Londoners giving themselves every chance of making it to a second consecutive Champions League Quarter-Final on home soil next week.
The return leg will take place at Boreham Wood FC on Wednesday, November 9, kick-off 2pm. Entry to the game is FREE.
- Byrne Yellow Card
- Ludlow (C)
- Carter 56
- Little Goal!
- White 80
- Sophie Harris
- Nobbs 56
- Beattie 80
- Angharad James
- Fumi Goto
- Pilar Villalba
- Natalia (C) 87 Goal!
- Saray Garcia
- Jenniffer Hermoso
- Estefania Guisado
- Patricia Martinez
- Ana Catala
- Alba Mellado
- Maria Molina
- Esther Gamo
- Paloma Lazaro 87