By Matt Fortune
Arsenal Ladies survived a scare to draw 3-3 with Bardolino Verona and clinch top spot in their Uefa Women's Cup qualifying group.
The European champions had already booked their Quarter-Final place with convincing victories over Alma and Neulengbach. The Italian champions were expected to suffer the same fate as their group rivals but instead they gave as good as they got.
Goals from Julie Fleeting and Lianne Sanderson gave the home side a two-goal cushion, but it was eradicated by Raffaella Manieri and Melania Gabbiadini within the hour. Kelly Smith looked to have sealed the victory for Arsenal five minutes from the end but they were pegged back again in stoppage time by Manieri.
Vik Akers made just one change from the team that had dismantled SV Neulengbach on Saturday, Sanderson returning in place of Karen Carney.
Arsenal had scored nine of their 11 goals from the previous two games in the first half and many believed they could add that tally against a team that struggled against the Austrians.
The visitors though created more in the opening 20 minutes, but any threat came from hopeful long balls as opposed to good build-up play. But Bardolino had set their stall out early. A formation laden with pace proved to be a promising outlet for the team that had already booked their place in the last eight.
The Italians nearly got their noses in front after as little as 30 seconds. A long-looping cross deceived the Arsenal backline and Valentina Boni pounced. Thankfully for Arsenal, her half-volley was shovelled away by Emma Byrne. The stopper was to have her most testing night of the campaign.
A lack of composure in the final third meant the deadlock wasn't broken until the 27th minute.
Making a substitution when defending a set play is often risky and so it proved. Valeria Magrini made way for Manieri as Ciara Grant shaped to float in a free-kick. With the defence disorganised and the goalkeeper flapping, Fleeting rose highest to nod home. Arsenal had the advantage and the crowd expected them to build on it.
The Italians nearly responded instantly. Patrizia Panico latched onto another long ball and raced towards Byrne. Anita Asante, solid throughout this group stage, recovered well and poked the ball away in the nick of time.
Just before the break Smith nearly made it two. The England striker evaded the attentions of two defenders and burst into the danger area. Her eventual strike though lacked venom and went just wide.
The half had wielded few chances, but in the first four minutes of the second period there were two goals. First Sanderson crashed home a low Rachel Yankey cross before Gabbiadini was allowed the freedom of the box to slot home one minute later.
The equaliser was fortuitous, a speculative drive from the substitute just before the hour escaping the clutches of Byrne. It rattled the Gunners and they returned to the sloppy football that had blighted the first half.
Arsenal soon regained their rhythm and with 15 minutes remaining they should have sealed the win. First Fleeting went close, before Jayne Ludlow smashed over from just inside the box the captain should have done better.
They were nearly made to rue the missed chances. Byrne produced a stunning save with her feet to snuff out what had been the best move of match.
Yankey, whose crosses had caused problems all night, found Fleeting unmarked at the back post. The Scot touched the ball down for Smith and the England star finished with aplomb for her first of the European campaign. The clock read 85 minutes and the holders were fully expected to hold on.
They couldn't. Manieri capitalised on what can best be best described as some lacklustre defending to grab a share of the spoils in stoppage time.
Julie Fleeting heads in our opener
The team congratulate our Scot
Kelly Smith takes on Stefanelli
Lianne Sanderson passes Magrini
Alex Scott and Sorvillo
Jayne Ludlow skips past Boni
Sanderson makes it 2-0
Kelly Smith nets our third
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