By Chris Harris
It's a little over five months since Arsenal Ladies became the first British club to win the Uefa Women's Cup. They were back at Meadow Park on Thursday night to make a solid start to the defence of their European crown.
It was all rather easy, in truth. Alma, the champions of Kazakhstan, were no match for Vic Akers' side and, after Karen Carney had broken the deadlock in the 21st minute, it was just a question of how many Arsenal would score.
The answer was four. Carney added to her glancing header with a clinical finish and Katie Chapman prodded in from close range shortly after the half-hour mark. Lianne Sanderson made it four seconds before the interval and, although Arsenal could have had more, that was that.
Next up for last season's quadruple winners are Neulengbach at St. Albans FC on Saturday. The Austrian champions should provide a sterner test but they will do well to keep this Arsenal side at bay.
As expected Kelly Smith's minor groin injury was not risked but a rather bigger surprise was the sight of Faye White among the substitutes as Akers stuck with the players who beat Umea in April's Final. You could hardly blame him; the makeshift centre-back partnership of Ciara Grant and Anita Asante did Arsenal proud in Europe last season.
You could have forgiven the Ladies some ring-rustiness - their season only started a couple of weeks ago thanks to the Women's World Cup in China. But they soon took a grip against clearly inferior opposition.
The chances flowed from the start. Rachel Yankey's low shot flew wide after Carney's cross and Julie Fleeting was denied by a last-ditch challenge from Oxana Chshurenko after Sanderson's selfless square ball left the Scot with an open goal. Sanderson volleyed straight at Oxana Zheleznyak before the Alma keeper went full stretch to tip a rasping 30-yarder from Mary Phillip over the top.
Zheleznyak was in for an extremely busy night and the woodwork was gainfully employed too. Chapman's left-foot effort clipped the bar on its way over and Jayne Ludlow, captain as she was throughout Arsenal's historic season, hit the post.
Arsenal finally broke the deadlock in the 21st minute. It was a simple goal, Phillip's deep cross from the left finding Carney unopposed in the Alma box. The England winger stooped to nod the ball into the corner and doubled her tally four minutes later, firing past Zheleznyak after bursting through the right channel.
Chapman nabbed the third, poking in from close range after Yankey's cross from the left. And Sanderson embarrassed Zheleznyak just before the half-time whistle, firing through the keeper's legs to make it four.
With the result in no doubt and three group games to play in the space of five days, it was perhaps no surprise that Arsenal's level dropped at the start of the second half. Some tenacious defending by Alma also stemmed the flow of chances but Arsenal could still have had a few more.
Fleeting sent a thumping header wide from another accurate Phillip cross while England duo Carney and Yankey were a constant threat on the flanks. Sanderson found space for a shot inside the area but fired straight at the keeper and any number of attacks were stifled by the visitors' massed ranks at the back.
Carney, probably Arsenal's best player on the night, continued to hunt for her hat-trick. With 20 minutes left she crashed a fierce shot off the underside of the bar with Zheleznyak well beaten.
Alma made a couple of rare forays forward, most notably when Mariya Yalova raced through before taking a tumble under Asante's challenge. The visitors screamed for a free-kick; the referee waved play on. Normal service was soon resumed when substitute Gemma Davison slalomed through the Alma defence and cut the ball back, but Ludlow bundled her effort wide.
Another sub, Gilly Flaherty, squandered a decent chance when a corner bounced out to her, Carney fired wide of the near post, Sanderson missed the target with a towering header and Grant shot wide on the turn as the clock ticked down.
Arsenal couldn't find another goal but they will be perfectly happy with four. The reigning European champions are up and running.
There is FREE entry to all of Arsenal Ladies' group fixtures in the Uefa Women's Cup.
* The first game in Group B1 was played earlier today with Italian side Bardolino Verona beating Austrian outfit SV Neulengbach 3-2.
The two teams greet each other
Our ladies line up for a picture
Katie Chapman holds off Ivanova
Alex Scott sends Li the wrong way
Karen Carney scores her second goal
Chapman makes it 3-0
Lianne Sanderson scores our fourth
Katie and Lianne celebrate
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