Arsenal Ladies will go to Frankfurt next Saturday with their Uefa Women's Cup Quarter-Final delicately poised.
Vic Akers' side had to dig deep during today's First Leg at Barnet after going behind to Sandra Smisek's strike after 23 minutes. Leanne Sanderson stabbed Arsenal level from close range on the stroke of the half time and both sides could have secured an advantage after the break. In the end a draw was the fairest result.
But before the game Akers suggested he wanted to go to Frankfurt with a foothold in the tie. His side achieved that with a gritty, gutsy display. The Germans are one of the top sides in Europe and Arsenal matched them tackle for tackle, shot for shot. A similar performance next week, with a slightly better result, would secure them one of the greatest scalps in their illustrious history
Frankfurt were the first to show in front of 976 spectators at Underhill on Saturday. Pia Wunderlich and Brigit Prinz tested keeper Emma Byrne before Arsenal had even mustered an effort on goal. Ciara Grant and Alex Scott responded with pot-shots from distance but Frankfurt were soon turning the screw again. Smisek's header looked like it might beat Byrne then Prinz's goalbound drive was blocked by Kirsty Pealling.
The expected goal arrived in the 23rd minute. Prinz found Smisek just inside the area and, with little backlift, she toe-poked the ball past Byrne's despairing drive and into the far corner. A sizeable German contingent in the crowd clanged their cowbells in celebration.
A second goal looked inevitable in the minutes that followed. Byrne had to hastily tip over from Renate Lingor. Then Prinz's clever ball released Pia Wunderlich, whose shot beat Byrne but rebounded off the inside of the post and back into the keeper's grateful arms.
However Arsenal responded to the pressure. In the 36th minute, Rachel Yankey lofted in a free-kick that might have crept in a the far post but for the last-second intervention of keeper Marleen Wissing's right leg. The increasing influential Kelly Smith then sprayed a superb ball wide for Scott and her cross set up Grant to fire goalwards.
Then came the equaliser. Deep into injury time Yankey picked up the ball just inside the area. The England international used all her speed and strength to reach the byline before cutting the ball back for Sanderson to convert for close range.
Yankey and Smith continued to run the game straight after half time. In the 46th minute the former's speculative cross drifted onto the bar before bouncing out to safety. Seconds later Smith appeared on the left wing and sent over a perfect cross for Grant at the far post. The Irish midfielder dived forward and met the ball powerfully with her head. However somehow she directed the ball wide. Arsenal were taking over. On the hour, Sanderson nudged a free-kick to Grant, who sent a rasping drive whistling past the post.
However Frankfurt have won this competition before and, in Prinz, possess one of the Ladies game's global superstars. Midway through the half she muscled off Faye White and forced Byrne to smother the ball at the near post. In the 70th minute she sent Lingor clear and although the midfielder lifted the ball over the advancing Byrne, she could not stop her lob from drifting wide.
The Germans had taken the reins of the game. Kerstin Garefrekes wriggled past Mary Phillip and Ludlow managed to hack the ball over her own bar to safety. Then, with 10 minutes left, Smisek set up Prinz, who sliced her long-range effort.
Grant might have converted in the dying minutes. Then, just as the clock clicked around to 90, Sanderson burst through but could only scramble her effort wide.
That would have put pressure on the Germans in the second leg. As it stands, Frankfurt know have fight on their hands if Akers' side reach this standard next week.
Lianne Sanderson equalises
High fives all round!
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