By Richard Clarke
Arsenal, Ajax and Valencia are locked together on five points at the top of Champions League Group B after the Gunners' disappointing 1-1 draw with the Dutch side at Highbury on Tuesday.
This game heralded the end of European football's winter break - although you would not know it on a chilly night in North London - and Arsène Wenger's side began their return in the best possible style.
After only five minutes, Sylvain Wiltord's powerful shot put the home side ahead. It seemed the perfect platform to go on and dominate a young, injury-hit Ajax side but the Dutch champions rallied remarkably well.
Nigel De Jong expertly equalised in the 17th minute and Ronald Koeman's side then threatened to take the lead. Arsenal upped their game in final 15 minutes of the half and continued to set the pace after the interval.
However, Dennis Bergkamp came closest to breaking the heart of his old side when he hit the post in the 71st minute.
Valencia's victory at Roma means three sides are tied at the top after four games. The Italians are the exception. They have not yet started their tally and frankly look out of the running. Arsenal's draw heaps pressure on next Wednesday's return game in Amsterdam.
Despite the 2-0 success at Old Trafford on Saturday, Wenger brought back the three players left out from that triumph - Gilberto, Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Edu made way for his compatriot, Bergkamp replaced Francis Jeffers and, as Wiltord was retained up front in a 4-3-3 formation, Ray Parlour was on the bench as well.
They were the unforced changes. Pascal Cygan's elevation to the team came about after Martin Keown succumbed to a bad back on the day of the game.
Ajax had major problems with six potential first-choice players absent through injury. Arsenal took only five minutes to prey on that weakness. Patrick Vieira found Bergkamp who sent Wiltord clear wide on the right. He dribbled into the area and powered his shot past Ajax keeper Bogdan Lobont at the near post.
Arsenal had their tails up, the first goal is often so crucial in these high-pressure Champions League ties at Highbury. Henry was buzzing around the Ajax box to good effect and, in the 12th minute, bamboozled his defender 25 yards out before sending a shot inches over the bar.
We seemed set for a simple night at Highbury. How wrong we were. In the 17th minute, Thomas Galasek's well-flighted cross-field pass floated over Ashley Cole at the far post and De Jong's excellent first touch allowed him to lift the ball over the advancing David Seaman.
It was the first goal Ajax had scored in England since they hit the net against Stoke City 28 years ago.
A minute later only a combination of Sol Campbell and Lauren stopped Zlatan Ibrahimovic powering clear in the area.
The visitors had now wrestled the initiative and Seaman gratefully held onto Maxwell's low shot in the 26th minute with a couple of strikers in close attendance.
The urgency returned to Arsenal in the final 15 minutes of the half. Robert Pires teased his marker before sending a curling shot whizzing just wide of the far post from 25 yards out. He fared somewhat worse seven minutes before the break, bursting past his marker but then skying his shot over the bar when well placed.
Just before the interval, Henry's long-range shot was tipped away by Lobont and the onrushing Pires just failed to connect with the loose ball in front of an open goal.
A hip injury prevented Seaman re-appearing for the second half so Stuart Taylor came off the bench. It is a role he is becoming used to, he famously came on at half time at Deportivo La Coruna last season and replaced Rami Shaaban in the Premiership game at Old Trafford earlier this season.
Taylor would have relieved to see Andy van der Meyde blaze over seven minutes after the break. But, with one exception, he spent most of the half as an alert spectator.
A mistake by his opposite number nearly gifted Arsenal the lead in the 54th minute. Lobont hurtled out of his area to block but his half-clearance fell to Wiltord who found Pires on the right just outside the area. He looked up and arrowed a low cross to Gilberto at the far post. However Lobont had recovered enough ground to smother his shot at the near post.
Suddenly Arsenal were on top. A clever ball from Pires released Cole on the left side of the Ajax penalty area and his low cross was miskicked by Galasek but, alas for Arsenal, only for a corner.
Still Highbury took heart from Bergkamp's invention. His flick gave Gilberto the chance to blaze narrowly over in the 65th minute. Six minutes later he nearly did it all himself. The Dutchman's bobbling shot left Lobont helpless as it bounced off the post and away to safety.
Immediately after that, Wenger threw on Jeffers in place of Gilberto. It left Arsenal playing 4-2-4 at times during the closing stages.
However the chance of the half fell to substitute Nordin Boukhari with four minutes left. He beat Taylor to Steven Pienaar's cross but could not divert it into the empty net.GROUP B TeamPldWDLFAPts Ajax3120435 ARSENAL3120425 Valencia3120215 AS Roma3003260
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26 May 2004
Cole skips past TrabelsiBergkamp holds off GalasekPasanen tries to halt HenrySylvain Wiltord shapes to shoot.....and it's there!Thierry celebrates with his French team-mateBogdan Lobont saves from Dennis Bergkamp
BUY THIS PICTUREGilberto sees his shot go wide of the post
BUY THIS PICTURE