Arsenal's grasp on the European Cup-Winners' Cup became a tenuous one last night after they were outplayed by an accomplished AJ Auxerre side at Highbury. The French cup winners arrived weakened by injury and fearful of Arsenal's reputation. They left with a precious away goal and a draw that puts then in command for the second leg of this quarter-final in a fortnight's time.
Arsenal were even handed the lead through a foolishly conceded penalty on the hour. But the spot-kick, converted by Ian Wright, was carelessly wasted as Frank Verlaat was allowed to equalise from a set-piece within two minutes.
Verlaat, capped for the first time by the Netherlands last week, was at the centre of a man-marking defensive system that strangled Arsenal's attacking efforts, and was the platform for a series of inventive sorties by the French.
The efficiency and flexibility of the Auxerre side was testimony to the tactical nous of Guy Roux, the man who built the club and one of the wiliest coaches in Europe. He is the sort of opponent George Graham, the disgraced former Arsenal manager, would have relished facing.
Instead it is Stewart Houston, his caretaker replacement, who must outwit Roux in France if Arsenal are to progress. Success would immeasurably strengthen his chances of succeeding Graham permanently. Failure, and the vultures will be gathering.
Houston did not seem overly concerned last night, even introducing jokes into the press conference, in stark contrast to his predecessor. He also said he had "expected more" from his team, notably in their failure to cope with the marking - "You must get used to having a gorilla up your backside for 90 minutes" - and in not testing Auxerre's inexperienced goalkeeper.
Fabian Cool was playing only his fifth match due to Auxerre's injury crisis, but had just two saves to make all match. The second, with 20 minutes to go, almost resulted in a second goal for Wright, but Stephane Mahe cleared Wright's flick off the line after the goalkeeper dropped a cross.
The first was after just four minutes and, had his parry from Stefan Schwarz's shot fallen to Chris Kiwomya rather than a defender, the whole night could have panned out differently.
As it was, Auxerre settled and dominated. Verlaat - who is coveted by Real Madrid - tidied at the back, while Coretin Martins created in midfield. Fortunately for Arsenal, Lilian Laslandes then wasted in attack.
The centre-forward could have scored after nine minutes, but miskicked Pascal Vahirua's cross when left alone at the far post. He then headed over the bar from another cross by the Tahitian-born French international, headed wide from Phillipe Violeau's chip, and misjudged an overhead kick.
Arsenal's response was limited to a wide far-post header by Kiwomya from Schwarz's cross, and they were booed off the pitch at the interval.
Houston's response, the replacement of Eddie McGoldrick by John Hartson, was a popular one, and it nearly brought early reward as Wright shot just wide from Paul Merson's cross.
Then, on 58 minutes, a free-kick fell to Jensen on the edge of the box, who clumsily pushed it past Taribo West. The ball went too far to be dangerous, but West foolishly stuck a leg out and Jensen tumbled over. Wright, after a long delay, scored.
Two minutes later, Dixon conceded a contested free-kick by the flag. Martins chipped to the near post and Verlaat headed in. Arsenal undone at a set-piece! In St Lucia - where he is believed to be holidaying - Graham must have been stunned.
So were his former charges, but they managed to lift themselves. Wright, running on to Hartson's flick, shot over; Merson followed suit and then, in injury time, Hartson miskicked from four yards.
"We had enough chances to win it comfortably," Houston said. But so did Auxerre, even three minutes into injury time when Martins, on the break, chipped just over with David Seaman stranded.
"I have told them the tie is far from over," Houston added. "It was more difficult than I expected, but I am confident we can go there and get the right result."
Roux said he had feared a repeat of the five-goal thrashing experienced by Nantes, the French leaders, in Germany this week. He added: "We are pleased, but cautious."
Arsenal (4-3-3): Seaman; Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn; McGoldrick, Jensen, Schwarz; Wright, Kiwomya, Merson. Substitutes: Hartson for McGoldrick, h-t; Parlour for Kiwomya, 79.
Auxerre (3-4-3): Cool; West, Verlaat, Mahe; Goma, Violeau, Martins, Rabarivony; Lamouchi, Laslandes, Vahirua. Substitutes: Remy for Rabarivony, 79; Baticle for Vahirua, 82.
Referee: L Sundell (Sweden).