By Chris Harris
Brave but beaten, Arsenal Ladies must look closer to home for silverware this season after crashing out of the Champions League on Sunday.
Laura Harvey’s team could not be faulted for their industry but Duisburg’s quality shone through at Bishop’s Stortford and two second-half goals sealed a 4-1 aggregate victory for the European champions.
Jennifer Oster converted Inka Grings’ pass three minutes after the break and substitute Marina Himmighofen ended Arsenal’s resistance three minutes from time as the hosts threw everything forward in search of a lifeline.
Gemma Davison went closest for the 2007 winners but, despite raising a few eyebrows by staying in the tie for so long, Arsenal could not upset the odds in the end.
However, the Premier League and FA Cup ‘double’ remains very much on their radar. And the experience of this defeat will surely hold a new generation of Arsenal Ladies in good stead for the future.
A sunny Spring day tempted a sizeable crowd of 724 to Bishop’s Stortford, including a large Duisburg contingent. And the Germans didn’t travel light - their baggage included rattles, a siren, a couple of large drums and some very enthusiast drummers. The din they created even drowned out the pre-match strains of ‘Eye of the Tiger’.
Not that Arsenal needed 'inspirational' music. The carrot of a Champions League Semi-Final was incentive enough for them to raise their game. As was the chance to silence the critics who had written them off long before a ball had been kicked in this tie.
But their predicament was precarious. A 2-1 first-leg defeat meant a 1-0 win would suffice but a clean sheet was central to Arsenal’s plans. Not surprisingly, Duisburg set about trying to score the goal which would scupper that strategy.
Barely a minute had elapsed when Simone Laudehr tested Byrne with a firm effort from the edge of the box, and the Arsenal keeper was soon forced into a fantastic save from Grings. Alexandra Popp crossed into the box and Grings rose to send a flick header towards the corner. Byrne somehow pawed the ball to safety.
Arsenal were enjoying their fair share of possession but Duisburg were more incisive. And the ubiquitous Grings was at the heart of their best work.
After 20 minutes she attracted three defenders like moths to a flame before clipping a pass through to Laudehr. The winger had acres of space but her touch was poor and Byrne was able to gather. Another chance went begging shortly afterwards when Laudehr headed Oster’s precise cross wide.
At the other end, Danielle Carter was often left to plough a lonely furrow in the absence of the suspended Kim Little. Her replacement, Jennifer Beattie, did her best to get forward in support while Rachel Yankey and Davison lurked menacingly on the flanks, but Arsenal found chances hard to come by.
That changed just before the break.
Yankey had just concluded a decent spell of pressure with a corner that almost curled straight in when Davison retrieved a pass just inside the left touchline. She looked up, skipped past two challenges and hammered in a shot, but Ursula Holl got everything behind it.
What the hosts had lacked in guile they made up for in durability, and that kept them in the tie until half-time. But three minutes after the restart, their hopes dwindled.
Inevitably Grings was involved as Duisburg moved the ball from right to left outside the Arsenal box. The striker picked out Oster in space and she drove unerringly into the far corner. The German drums went into overdrive; Arsenal now needed two just to force extra time.
Harvey’s team had to gamble. And they did.
Within minutes of the goal, a flowing move involving Davison and Beattie saw the latter pick out Yankey’s run with a supreme pass. The England winger tried to find space for a shot but was muscled out of it on the edge of the box. Moments later, Ludlow fired an effort wide from distance.
As Arsenal pushed forward, gaps opened at the other end and Grings forced another decent save from Byrne on the hour mark. But the hosts stayed in the ascendancy.
Yankey and Beattie both tried their luck from outside the box but, sadly, accuracy was in short supply. Then with 10 minutes left a cut-back from substitute Laura Bruton only just evaded Carter’s run to the near post.
Duisburg were stretched but they did not snap. And befitting of European champions, they ruthlessly sealed victory with a few minutes left.
Corinne Yorston’s back-pass was underhit and, as Byrne rushed out, Himmighofen toe-poked the ball into the net despite the best efforts of Faye White to keep the ball out.
There was no way back from that.
Referee: Kirsi Heikkinen (Finland)
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