Surely Ajax's string of European successes would come to an end against Arsenal? The Gunners were the heavy favorites to hand Ajax their first defeat in the second round of the UEFA Champions League. And despite Arsenal taking the lead after only four minutes, Ronald Koeman's team got away with a draw: 1-1.
Steven Pienaar's play served as an icon for Ajax's form at the highest European platform this season. The South-African had to do battle in midfield with Patrick Vieira, the wonderful central midfielder of Arsenal and France. Vieira is both in reputation and in physique bigger than the young Pienaar. But the applause from the stands, when he was substituted in extra time, was for Steven Pienaar. ,,You've got a great future ahead of you´´, Vieira praised his young opponent when both teams left the pitch after the fascinating match. ,,I really enjoyed Pienaar's performance´´, Koeman said afterwards. ,,And I have enjoyed him for a while now. He was our best player.´´
Another outstanding performance was given by Nigel de Jong. The man from Amsterdam scored his first official goal for Ajax's first team and he couldn't have picked a better moment. After Ajax had been overrun by Arsenal in the opening minutes, the Ajax players came back. De Jong received a long pass by Galasek and ran towards the opposing goal. Most players were expecting a cross but De Jong decided to shoot and passed Seaman for the equaliser: 1-1. And other than helping Ajax to a point, Nigel de Jong was mainly in the second half responsible for keeping the sly Pires below his usual level.
Initially, it did not appear Ajax would trouble Arsenal in any way. The Londoners rushed toward Bogdan Lobont's goal straight from the kick-off. Arsenal got two coner kicks from their first attack. Bergkamp, Pires and Henry fired at Lobont. And after only four minutes teh home side struck. Ajax lost the ball and Arsenal moved quickly. Dennis Bergkamp freed himself nicely and saw Ajax's left flank wide open. The quicksilver Wiltord ran into the space and converted Bergkamp's perfect pass into a goal: 1-0.
,,We feared a bit of a beating at that stage´´, Ronald Koeman said. ,,But I got soem hope after fifteen minutes.´´ That was when Ajax, through Andy van der Meyde who played up front with Zlatan, had their first (small) chance. ,,Then Nigel makes that fantastic goal´´, Koeman analysed. ,,I think we did rather well after that.´´
Yet Koeman was not entirely satisfied, despite the good result. ,,In posession we weren't very good´´, the coach said. ,,maybe we could have gotten more. It is great that we have this many points after two difficult away games, nobody expected that. The team's mind set is good. But we're still not satisfied. That's how football is.´´
Koeman had identified Arsenal's defence, this time with Pascal Cygan for the injured veteran Keown, as the side's least strong line. But Ajax were not given as many chances as Arsenal. As the match went on, the distance between Zlatan and the rest of the team grew bigger. The Swedish striker had to come back more and more to collect the ball, and his normally fluent moves sorted little effect Wednesday evening. Zlatan was replaced by Nourdin Boukhari ten minutes before the end, which meant that Ajax finished the match without a true centre forward. Boukhari could have made himself immortal when, with the game nearly finished, he almost surprised goalkeeper Stuart Taylor, who had replaced the injured Seaman after halftime. Boukhari could not control the ball and the chance of an ever bigger surprise went lost.
Arsenal came on strong in the second half, but seemed to lose faith in their own chances of winning as the match progressed. Dennis Bergkamp, who fought out many duels with his direct opponent Galasek, did hit the post midway through the second half, when he span away from his defender and suddenly shot on goal. In the closing stages Arsenal manager Wenger tried it with striker Jeffers for midfielder Gilberto and Kanu for Bergkamp, but it did not lead to great opportunities. That was also due to Ajax's defence, which after a difficult start, remained upright. ,When Arsenal tried to build an attack from the back, defensively we did well´´, Koeman thought.
Arsenal's best chances to score actually came from small mistakes of Ajax in the back. Lobont dropped a seemingly easy ball, which nearly led to a goal. And a miscommunication between Jelle van Damme, who was repced by Richard Witschge after 75 minutes, almost made the Belgian defender pass his own goalkeeper. Lobont was alert when Henry, Pires and Wiltord had some good chances.
With Yakubu on for Pienaar in the added time, Ajax managed another point in a difficult away match. The side from Amsterdam share the lead in the group with Arsenal and Valencia, who beat Roma on Wednesday. Soon the teams face each other again, this time in Amsterdam. Koeman refuesed to look ahaed to that match. The coach also refuted the suggestion that Arsenal underestimated his team. ,,Today wasn't the first time we got a good result in the Champions League.´´ Whoever in England had not heard of Steven Pienaar before the game, is now warned. The kids from Amsterdam do not intend to leave the European football stage without a fight.