By Richard Clarke in Kyiv
William Gallas rescued a late point for Arsenal at Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday night just as it seemed their pain in Ukraine would linger on.
With only two minutes remaining, it appeared Ismael Bangoura’s debatable second-half penalty had made it four games, four defeats out here for Arsène Wenger’s side in the last decade.
However, just as he had at Twente in the qualifier, the Arsenal captain arrived on cue at the back post to bundle home a low cross from Theo Walcott. It was a scrappy goal but certainly deserved.
Although Arsenal never looked truly comfortable in the first half, they still created enough chances to put the game beyond doubt. Kyiv were certainly better after the break but one moment and one decision changed the course of the game.
Still, big teams always respond. Wenger had suggested pre-match that he would be satisfied with a draw and it is hard to argue they deserved much more. Group G still has five games to go and this was a solid enough start.
Wenger made only one change from the side that had won so handsomely at Blackburn on Saturday. Emmanuel Eboue had been doubtful after picking up a knock at Ewood Park. He was fit enough to travel but, in the end, was left on the bench for the game.
The wide midfielder was replaced by a central player - Alex Song – as Wenger switched to 4-5-1. Song and Denilson occupied the defensive roles in that central quintet with Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and left midfielder Robin van Persie given license further forward.
The small, tree-lined Valeri Lobanovski Stadium held just 16,000 and was a stark contrast to the mammoth 80,000-capacity Olimpiyskiy where Wenger’s side had gone down 2-1 five years earlier.
Arsenal’s only surviving starter from that miserable night was Kolo Toure, though Gael Clichy had been on the bench. Wenger would argue his side had been rebuilt and reinvigorated since then. Certainly teak-tough trips likes Blackburn and Bolton hold only some of their former trepidation these days. But Arsenal still had to overcome their former Eastern Bloc block.
Despite creating sufficient opportunities, their first-half performance did not entirely convince. The visitors were always patient and controlled but never dominant.
In the second minute, Walcott nudged a pass into the right-hand channel and Van Persie timed his run perfectly to race through and collect the ball on the corner of the six-yard box. The Dutchman had time to pick his spot but he chose power instead. Keeper Stanislav Bogush blocked with his body. Wenger’s formation was relatively cautious so this was never going to be one of those overwhelming Arsenal performances. But they were still the team most likely to score.
In the 18th minute Roman Eremenko’s slip gave Adebayor the chance to run at the Kyiv backline. He did an effective job of slipping between the final two defenders however, once he had sight of goal, his nerve deserted him. The Togolese striker’s attempted curler whistled just wide.
For their part, Kyiv were the compact, organised side Wenger had predicted. However they were pretty toothless too. The closest they got in the first half-hour was a long-distance piledriver from captain Nesmachniy. Almunia was untroubled.
The hosts came on strong in the latter stages of the first half but, yet again, the chances came from Arsenal. Five minutes from the break, a flowing move ended with Bacary Sagna sending over a low cross from the right and Van Persie swung a shot into the sidenetting.
A better opportunity presented itself a couple of minutes later. Adebayor clipped a cross to the far past where Van Persie touched it back for the unmarked Fabregas six yards out. The Spaniard failed to get sufficient purchase on his shot and Bogush gratefully plucked the ball out of the air.
However, three minutes into the second half, it was the Arsenal keeper who was feeling relieved. Roman Eremenko’s low angled drive rebounded off the base of the post, hit the diving Almunia on the back and trickled invitingly across the six-yard area. The Spaniard recovered quickly and smothered the ball. It was a scare entirely out of keeping with the first 45 minutes.
Arsenal responded with urgency but precious few chances. They would suffer the consequences in the 61st minute when Bangoura crossed from the right and Sagna was adjudged to have bundled over Ognjen Vukojevic in the middle.
The Guinea striker raced over to collect the loose ball and placed it on the penalty spot with purpose. Bangoura sent Almunia the wrong way and Kyiv had the lead. It was only the second goal he had conceded in 10 hours of competitive football this season.
Almost immediately Wenger took steps.
Nicklas Bendtner replaced Song and joined Adebayor up front in a more conventional 4-4-2.
However the better chances were now coming from Kyiv. Gael Clichy’s last-ditch challenge denied Eremenko when he seemed set to go clear. Then Toure robbed Taras Mikhalik but the ball ran loose for Bangoura to hammer a drive into the sidenetting.
As the minutes ticked by Arsenal wrenched control of the game. They forced a succession of corners but only had Adebayor’s far-post header to show for them.
Wenger also brought on Carlos Vela and Eboue to add some late urgency. To their credit, they kept the pressure on and Kyiv eventually cracked. Gallas’ goal was low on style yet sky high on importance.
And, on the night, it left Arsenal satisfied.
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Referee: L M Cantalejo (Spain)