(Arsenal Ladies win 1-0 on aggregate)
By Chris Harris
It's official - Arsenal Ladies are the best team in Europe.
Vic Akers' side held their nerve at a packed Meadow Park to keep Swedish champions Umeå at bay and become the first British team to win the Uefa Women's Cup. Not a bad way to celebrate the club's 20th anniversary.
Alex Scott's long-range strike in the dying seconds of the first leg meant a clean sheet would be sufficient and that's exactly what Arsenal got. They rode their luck at times - Marta and Ramona Bachman were both denied by the woodwork - but this goalless draw owed just as much to Emma Byrne's reflexes and a sterling effort from Arsenal's makeshift back four. And, it must be said, the Ladies had chances of their own to put the tie beyond doubt.
Ultimately, the narrowest of aggregate wins was secured. It's 13 years since 'One-nil to the Arsenal' became the theme tune of the men's march to European glory. Now that terrace chant resonates with the Ladies too. Their European trophy sits proudly alongside the two domestic honours already secured this season - the Premier League title and the League Cup. An incredible campaign could well end with FA Cup glory in eight days time.
As expected, Akers kept faith with the team which gave Arsenal their precious advantage in the first leg. That meant no place for captain Faye White, recently back from a serious knee injury. She took her place on the bench alongside another England star - the suspended Kelly Smith.
Given this was the biggest game of their lives, it was no surprise that Arsenal's nerves frayed in the early stages. Byrne whacked a clearance straight at Marta and Grant's hesitance almost let in Hanna Ljungberg. To her credit Grant recovered to make an outstanding block from the Swede and then threw herself in front of Lise Klaveness' shot.
Arsenal's passing lacked its usual crispness early on but they still fashioned some decent chances. Katie Chapman's first-minute header didn't do justice to Mary Phillip's excellent cross and Jayne Ludlow fired over after robbing Ma Xiaoxu 25 yards out. Scott, hero of the first leg, also had a sight of goal. Receiving the ball in yards of space on the right-hand side of the penalty area, a precise cross was the order of the day. Instead she went for glory. It worked in Sweden last weekend but, on this occasion, Scott's effort was high and wide.
Umeå's passing had been neater but they had created little so far. That changed on 20 minutes with a slick move down the left. Elaine found Ljungberg, her exquisite touch took her away from her marker and, after cutting inside, the striker tried her luck. Grant, not for the first time, put her body in the firing line twice in a matter of seconds.
The Swedes had upped the tempo. Marta raced to the byline but her firm left-wing cross just eluded Ljungberg. Then Byrne dived to her left to push away Lisa Dahlqvist's fierce shot. A good spell of Umeå pressure ended when Grant stopped Ma in her tracks after a weaving run through the heart of Arsenal's defence.
You could have made a case for either team to be leading at the break but the 0-0 scoreline would have suited Akers nicely. The onus was still on Umeå to make the breakthrough.
You sensed that Marta would be the instigator if the Swedish champions did find the goal they needed to force extra time. The World Player of the Year was the visitors' chief threat but, time and again, she was snuffed out by Arsenal's relentless pressing and firm tackling. Marta had to drop deeper and deeper to escape her shackles; her threat diminished as a result.
Byrne did well to claw away one dangerous cross from Marta and the Brazilian also found room to float a pass into Ljungberg's path. Yet again excellent defensive cover thwarted Umeå, this time from Phillip. The visitors were creating chances, but there was nothing gilt-edged about them. Not at this stage, anyway.
Indeed, the clearer opportunities were being carved out at the other end. With Sanderson pulling the strings, Fleeting making a nuisance of herself and Yankey and Carney offering pace on the flanks, Arsenal continued to stretch the Umeå back four.
Sanderson picked out Carney with a clever flicked pass but the winger's shot on the turn flew harmlessly wide. Ludlow looped a header over the bar from Sanderson's free kick and Fleeting burst clear in the right channel, only for the Umeå defence to make up lost ground and snuff out the danger. With 25 minutes left Fleeting had a good chance to put the tie to bed but, having collected Yankey's deep cross just inside the box, she volleyed off target. Seconds later Carney's driven cross ricocheted off a defender and almost fell for Fleeting, but Carola Soberg dived on the ball.
Would those misses prove costly? It looked that way when Umeå cranked up the pressure as the game entered its final quarter. Bachman, on as a substitute, was the catalyst. She forced a brilliant fingertip save from Byrne, saw another effort fly narrowly over the bar and then, with 10 minutes to go, smashed a shot against the post. You had to wonder why this talented Swiss teenager had not been on from the start.
Marta also whistled a shot just over as Umeå grew increasingly desperate. Arsenal were struggling to get out of their own half but Sanderson brought some relief, and almost a magnificent goal, when she slammed a long-range shot inches over the crossbar.
Back came Umeå. Ludlow was harshly adjudged to have fouled Marta just outside the box and the Brazilian dusted herself off to curl a fantastic free-kick towards the top corner. Byrne was equal to it, tipping the ball onto the bar at full stretch. It was hearts in mouths time and the stress levels weren't helped when the fourth official's board subjected Arsenal to five minutes of stoppage time. But there was no siege; instead, White almost got on the end of Carney's cross shortly after replacing Ludlow. Then Fleeting toe-poked a half-chance inches past the post.
That would have put the icing on Arsenal's cake, but it mattered not. The final whistle sparked joyous celebrations as the entire Arsenal squad - not to mention the coaching staff - sprinted from the bench. Twenty years after starting their journey together, Akers and Arsenal Ladies stand at the pinnacle of the women's game.
The Ladies line up before the big game
Lianne Sanderson takes on Marta
Alex Scott is felled by Soberg
Chapman celebrates at the whistle
The rest of the team invade the pitch
Faye White leads the celebrations
Arsenal Ladies - Champions of Europe
The trophy is lifted aloft
Our ladies show off their medals
The victorious Ludlow & Akers
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