Arsenal’s place in the Champions League group stage remains uncertain after Ajax drew an unlikely 2-2 in the first leg of their second-round qualifier.
The Gunners had taken a 2-1 lead after a Stina Blackstenius goal and a Kim Little penalty, denying Romee Leuchter’s early goal. But Leuchter drew the Dutch to equalize in the 83rd minute, turning the tie back in their favor.
Although away goals don’t count, Arsenal have their hands full in next week’s second leg in Amsterdam. Ajax were the underdogs going into this clash but caused the Gunners some problems in defense and showed they are more than capable of asserting themselves on their own turf.
Jonas Eidevall benched 15-year-old Madison Earl and Katie Reid, but a close affair meant neither youngster could follow in Ethan Nwaneri’s footsteps by making his pro debut.
Ajax were not here to roll over and although they were the underdogs they were the stronger team in the early stages. A fierce shot from Victoria Pelova from the edge of the area forced Arsenal goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger to make an early save.
Ajax continued to have the better chances and took the lead in the 17th minute. The Dutch came into play on Arsenal’s left and a Chasity Grant cross was put in with a lateral foot by Leuchter.
Arsenal found an almost immediate response from a Beth Mead free-kick that was spilled by Ajax goalkeeper Lize Kop, but Stina Blackstenius was only able to send a rebound wide of the target. But the forward didn’t want to make the same mistake twice and two minutes later she shot her side level. Rafaelle’s header bounced off the bar and Blackstenius slammed in from two yards out.
Both teams had chances to take the lead before half-time, but neither was able to convert them. First, Vivianne Miedema shot wide of the goal from the penalty area, before Zinsberger parried a fierce long-range shot by Leuchter.
The Gunners were inches from taking the lead just after half-time when Steph Catley rattled a shot off the bar. The woodwork got in Arsenal’s way again as Rafaelle drilled against the post with little effort.
But the hosts’ pressure finally showed when Isa Kardinaal brought Mead down in the penalty area and referee Frida Nielsen awarded a penalty. Kim Little stepped forward to send Kop the wrong way and give her side a 2-1 lead.
Catley almost grabbed what would have been a huge third goal as she found herself 1v1 with Kop, but the keeper spread well to make an important save.
The Gunners paid for their missed chances as a sloppy defense gave Ajax the equalizer. Arsenal failed to clear their lines and a scramble between goals ensued, with Leuchter hitting the ball at the back post.
Katie McCabe thought she had restored Arsenal’s lead when she fired a shot into the top corner but the winger was flagged for offside.
Ajax held their ground throughout the six-minute stoppage time, scoring a well-deserved draw that will no doubt give them great confidence for next week’s game.