By Richard Clarke in Amsterdam
Crisis? What crisis?
Arsenal brushed aside a raft of injuries to take Champions League Group B by the scruff of the neck with a brave, battling 2-1 victory in the Amsterdam ArenA on Tuesday night.
Arsène Wenger was without six first-team players and had to use Freddie Ljungberg as a makeshift striker. The Swede responded by prodding Arsenal ahead after only 80 seconds. When Robert Pires added another from the penalty spot in the 69th minute, the tie looked over but Ajax replied almost immediately through Markus Rosenberg.
It made for a tense finale but Arsenal held on with few real alarms. They now top their group with six points, three clear of their nearest rivals.
A quick glance at the bench told you how stretched Arsenal had been by injury and suspension. If you exclude Pascal Cygan, the other six substitutes could muster only eight starts for the Club in the Premiership and FA Cup.
For the record the absences were: Thierry Henry (groin), Dennis Bergkamp (groin/back), Gilberto (ankle), Jens Lehmann (suspension), Robin van Persie (suspension) and Philippe Senderos (back). Thankfully Pires recovered from his thigh problem to resume his usual role on the left.
Ajax were little better. They had six players absent as well, including the artful Wesley Sneijder and lethal Mauro Rosales. Both sides would be young and leaning heavily on their few experienced heads.
Arsenal had a dream start. Just 80 seconds into the game they took the lead. Left back Urby Emanuelson knocked the ball towards Nourdin Boukhari but Mathieu Flamini stole it. He fed Jose Antonio Reyes who put it through legs of Grygera to Ljungberg just inside the area. The Swede collected the ball, took a second to assess his options then decided to lift the ball over the advancing keeper. It was a superb way to notch up the Club’s 100th goal in the Champions League.
Not surprisingly, Ajax were rattled and they spent the next 15 minutes on the back foot. Reyes was their chief tormentor but Arsenal never quite found a gap to exploit or killer pass during their period in the ascendancy.
Although the visitors had the edge, the home side conjured up three chances to pull level before the break. In the 13th minute, Sol Campbell slid in to intercept as Noudin Boukhari was about to latch onto an angled ball from the left. Just before the half-hour the same player tried his luck from distance and Manuel Almunia spilled the chance. However the Spaniard keeper managed to scramble out and smother the ball before Angelos Charisteas could follow up.
Ajax started to find their feet as the half drew to a close. Winger Ryan Babel seemed to be their best outlet and Ashley Cole had to be at his best to stifle his runs down the right.
In injury time, Steven Pienaar spurned a great chance. Boukhari raced through, drew Almunia before dragging the ball back to fool the Arsenal defence. He squared to the South African who faced a goal guarded by defenders but no keeper. He skewed the ball horribly over the bar.
There was more urgency about Ajax at the start of the second half. There needed to be. In the 50th minute, Babel’s fierce cross-shot was pawed aside and shortly afterwards Nigel de Jong fired just wide.
In the 53rd minute Kolo Toure collided heads with Charisteas. It was a worrying, nasty but utterly unintentional clash. Both went off for treatment. The Greek striker did not return but Toure did, albeit with a bandage around his head.
Arsenal’s other centre back was having a great game and he saved them once again on the hour when he hooked the ball away from Rosenborg as the Swedish striker bore down on goal. It seemed that an Ajax goal might be on the way.
Then, nine minutes later, Arsenal scored.
Fabregas sent Reyes scurrying into the area and keeper Hans Vonk brought him down. Pires dispatched the spot kick with simplicity.
However there was to be no easy finish and the home side hauled themselves back into the game in spectacular fashion four minutes later. Tomas Galasek let fly from 30 yards and Almunia dived full length to touch the ball onto the inside of the post. It bounced out straight to Rosenberg who scrambled the ball into the net from close range.
De Jong came close to getting Ajax level in the 82nd minute but, at the other end, Vonk had to make a great save when Zdenek Grygera’s clearance cannoned off Reyes and arrowed towards to far corner.
Had Thun not scored in the 89th minute to beat Sparta Prague then this victory would have sent Arsenal four points clear with only two games played. Still, no matter. A pair a 2-1 wins have done much to lift the side out of that early season stutter and put them firmly on course for the Knockout Stage.
Referee: Luis Medina Cantalejo
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