Arsenal’s WCL hopes in balance after Leuchter’s first-leg double for Ajax | Women’s Champions League

Arsenal face a tricky trip to Amsterdam next week, after a 2-2 draw at home to Ajax put their hopes of reaching the Champions League group stage in the balance.

The Gunners came from behind in the first half, with Stina Blackstenius cancelling out Romée Leuchter’s strike before Kim Little put the home team ahead from the spot. A controversial offside decision denied the Gunners a second penalty and Leuchter ensured that the Dutch side would be returning home with the tie level.

If there was a question mark over Jonas Eidevall’s Arsenal last season, it was perhaps whether there was enough resilience and fight when the team conceded first. Just twice, in all competitions, would the Gunners come from behind to secure a win – though they would also rescue a point apiece against Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham.

Whether things have changed would be tested early on against Ajax, a team that are not one of Europe’s elite, but are a well-organised side bolstered by Netherlands internationals Sherida Spitse, who has over 200 caps for her country, and young stars Victoria Pelova and 21-year-old Leuchter.

The home team dominated, their slick passing unhindered by the three changes from Friday night’s 4-0 defeat of Brighton. Both full-backs were swapped for the visit of the Dutch league’s runners-up, with Noelle Maritz and Steph Catley in for Laura Wienroither and Katie McCabe, while Sweden international Lina Hurtig was handed her first start, having joined from Juventus in the summer, ahead of Caitlin Foord.

But it would be Ajax that would carve the better chances with Pelova forcing a save from Manuela Zinsberger early on before Leuchter flicked Chasity Grant’s cross from the right beyond the home side’s goalkeeper at the near post.

The Arsenal players looked extremely frustrated at having conceded their first goal since April. They sought an instant reply, with Hurtig brought down on the edge of the area, Euros golden ball and golden boot winner Beth Mead went for goal, goalkeeper Lize Kop spilled the ball but Hurtig’s compatriot Blackstenius could only hook the rebound wide of the post.

Three minutes later and the Swedish forward was not so profligate, pouncing fastest after Rafaelle’s header from a corner had smacked back off the crossbar to fire past Kop.

Kim Little slots home her penalty.
Kim Little slots home her penalty. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

Arsenal continued to control the tempo, but struggled to find a way through. Instead, the visiting team would again threaten, with Zinsberger forced into a late save at her near post after Leuchter had beaten Rafaelle and struck for goal.

The Gunners came out after the break with the bit between their teeth but they struggled to find a way through the resilient centre-back partnership of 17-year-old Isa Kardinaal and 21-year-old Lisa Doorn. Two minutes into the half and Catley was released on the left but, forced wide a little, her effort ricocheted off the outside of the near post.

Rafaelle would test the strength of the opposite upright shortly after, racing out right to collect a clearance from a Mead corner before weaving back towards the box and cracking a powerful strike off the near post.

It would take an error to force a goal, with Soraya Verhoeve penalised for clattering heavily into Mead’s head just inside the box. Up stepped captain Little who sent the keeper the wrong way and sidefooted coolly in.

Arsenal could perhaps feel aggrieved their margin was not greater. Substitute Foord was released through the middle and clattered into by Kop but the offside flag was controversially up denying them a clear penalty and red card. Moments later they were to rue the decision, as some chaotic defending saw Maritz beaten and England captain Leah Williamson fail to clear allowing Leuchter to swipe in from close range.

Arsenal went in search of the winner. They looked to have one when substitute McCabe turned a free-kick into the roof of the net from close range but the flag was up for offside.

Eidevall’s side next faces Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, where there will likely be a WSL record crowd with 48,000 tickets sold, before they travel to the Netherlands to attempt to book a place in the group stage of the Champions League.

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