By Nik Brumsack at Meadow Park
Arsenal Ladies face an uphill battle to reach the Champions League final after being beaten 2-0 by VfL Wolfsburg at Meadow Park.
Goals in each half from Conny Pohlers and Martina Muller did the damage on a frustrating afternoon for Shelley Kerr’s side in front of 1,406 supporters.
In truth, 2-0 was a harsh reflection of a tie in which luck deserted the Gunners.
Ellen White twice had efforts cleared off the line and also rattled the crossbar on a day when the ball just wouldn’t go in for Kerr’s team.
The Ladies had gone into this tie having recorded a morale-boosting 6-0 win against Birmingham in the FA Cup quarter-final on Tuesday night.
Kerr made just one change to her team from that game, with Jennifer Beattie replacing the suspended Ciara Grant.
With Kelly Smith still injured, Steph Houghton captained the side. Kim Little and Jordan Nobbs, who had both excelled against Birmingham, partnered her in the middle.
Kerr had spoken in the build-up to the game about the urge within the squad to avenge the disappointment of two successive European semi-final defeats.
But Wolfsburg’s rise to the top of German club football has been rapid and they came into this clash seven points clear at the top of the Frauen Bundesliga and full of confidence.
The visitors started the game well. They were quick to press Arsenal in midfield, they used the ball effectively and they came close to taking the lead after seven minutes, when Muller was only denied by Gilly Flaherty’s important sliding block.
The game was tense. Neither side were able to assert complete control on proceedings, with the industry of both midfields preventing a clear chance at either end.
But slowly, Kerr’s side began to grow into the tie.
After 20 minutes, Yankey’s inswinging corner caused pandemonium in the area and, after a goalmouth scramble, Lena Goessling was on hand to head the ball off the line.
Not even a minute later, White and Little linked up before the latter flashed a shot inches wide.
But just as Arsenal began to seize control of proceedings, the visitors took the lead.
Flaherty was robbed by Anna Blasse 25 yards from goal. The winger advanced down the right before whipping in a cross that an unmarked Pohlers volleyed clinically beyond Byrne.
The Gunners’ response was almost instantaneous.
White bustled her way clear of the defence and, after rounding Alisa Vetterlein, toe-poked an effort goalwards. Unfortunately for the England international, Luisa Wensing diverted the ball away from danger.
Wolfsburg had largely managed to stifle the pair’s influence on the tie but five minutes before the break, Yankey got away and was fouled near the touchline.
That Houghton went for goal perhaps caught Vetterlein by surprise, and the goalkeeper was fortunate to see the effort cleared just in front of the line.
The second half began following very much the same trend of the opening 45 minutes.
Wolfsburg worked hard to frustrate their opponents. They defended stubbornly and held the ball well when in possession.
After an hour they could have doubled their advantage.
Alexandra Popp was slid clear through the middle and was met by the onrushing Byrne. The forward went down and when Kateryna Monzul rushed over with her hand in her pocket, the Ladies will have feared the worst.
Fortunately for Arsenal and Byrne, Monzul produced a yellow card for simulation that rules an outraged Popp out of the second leg.
As the second half progressed, the Ladies began to up the pressure.
Jennifer Beattie glanced a header wide before White nodded against the crossbar.
The striker went even closer with 15 minutes to play, rising highest to meet Yankey’s cross but seeing her effort nodded off the line by Wensing.
Wolfsburg had somehow weathered the storm, and in the closing stages they took a big step to securing their place in the final.
Anna Blasse’s cross from the left arrived at the feet of Muller at the back post. The striker made no mistake, placing the ball past Byrne to ensure that Wolfsburg will go into next week’s return leg as favourites to progress.
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