A frustrating evening at Meadow Park saw the first leg of our Women's Champions League qualifier with Ajax end in a draw.
Goals from Stina Blackstenius and a Kim Little penalty were almost enough to give us the advantage over our Dutch opponents until Romee Leuchter bagged her second only a few minutes before the final whistle.
The visitors started on the front foot, offering a different, more physical test than the one we faced against Brighton at the weekend. An early shot on target from Ajax required a good save from Manuela Zinsberger and their pressure eventually paid off in the 16th minute, as a series of short passes inside our box culminated in star striker Romee Leuchter firing home from close range.
However, we responded to their goal almost immediately. In her full debut for us, Lina Hurtig received the ball in a dangerous area, forcing a defender into a foul. The ensuing free kick was beautifully struck by Beth Mead, but Ajax keeper Lize Kop denied us the equaliser with her fingertips.
We did level the scoreline soon enough. Rafaelle Souza rose high to meet a corner and though her header rattled the crossbar, Blackstenius pounced on the rebound to bury it into the net.
Captain Kim Little came close to scoring a few minutes later, showing a great piece of determination to win the ball back and race down the right wing. Her attempted cut-back was just knocked away for a corner.
Just before half-time, Zinsberger made another great block at point blank range to keep it even as the players headed into the changing rooms to regroup.
We started the second half with an elevated sense of urgency. On her Champions League debut, centre-back Rafaelle had a blinder of a performance courtesy of some marauding runs and flourishes of skill both in her own box and the opposition’s.
In one particular highlight, she shrugged off a defender with neat footwork and unleashed a rocket of a shot which cruelly hit the inside of the near post.
Our eventual breakthrough came from the penalty spot. Beth Mead, who had an uncharacteristically quiet game, was brought down in the area and our skipper stepped up to calmly slot home from the spot.
Caitlin Foord made an immediate impact off the bench, brushing off tackles and battling her way through the heart of the Ajax defence. Apart from a couple of long-range efforts from Blackstenius and Leah Williamson, we didn't trouble Kop much more in the Ajax goal.
Ten minutes from time, Ajax raised the tempo and against the run of play, managed to score a scrappy equaliser in the 83rd minute.
As our lead slipped away, substitute Katie McCabe got the end of a long cross from a free kick and smashed the ball into the net. Despite being played onside by an Ajax defender in the box, the linesman had her flag up and the goal was not given.
Despite six minutes of added time and a number of near misses, we were unable to find a winner and the game finished all square.
What it means
We head to Amsterdam next week with everything to play for and a score to settle. The decisive qualifying leg will kick off on September 28 at 6.00pm UK time.
Starting XI: Zinsberger, Maritz, Williamson, Rafaelle, Catley, Walti, Miedema, Little, Mead, Blackstenius, Hurtig
Substitutes: Marckese, Wubben-Moy, Beattie, McCabe (‘74), Wienroither, Maanum, Nobbs, Foord (‘57), Agyemang, Reid, Earl
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