Arsenal slip from cruise control

AZ Alkmaar 1 Arsenal 1
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The Independent Football

It was one of those moments that make a manager, whatever his protestations of eternal youth inside, look like the 60-year-old Arsène Wenger will become tomorrow. His Arsenal team were cruising towards the group stages of the Champions League on the back of a 35th-minute goal by Cesc Fabregas. Then, deep into injury-time, David Mendes da Silva scored a stunning equaliser to send the supporters of this recently benighted Dutch club into rapture.

In the context of last night's results in Barcelona, Milan and Liverpool the Gunners are still making serene progress – they lead Group H and victories in successive forthcoming home matches against AZ and Standard Liege will send them through with a match to spare. Nevertheless, Wenger knows they need to control matches, and close them out, better than this if they are if they intend to figure in May's final in Madrid.

"We need to play better," he admitted. "We were largely in control but when you are only one goal in front there is always a risk. In football you can concede with one kick."

Wenger blamed naivety, both in conceding a free-kick near the halfway line for offside, which enabled AZ to hit the ball into a packed box, and in not picking up the scorer as he met the second ball. He added: "It is frustrating but we are in a very strong position. We have two home games and one away. I believe if we win one we will qualify."

The story of this match is not, however, one of Arsenal dropping a point, it is of AZ's defiance. The club has had a traumatic week. At the weekend they conceded a goal in the last minute, for the third time in a month, to lose to Steve McClaren's Twente Enschede. On Monday they discovered Dirk Scheringa, the man who bankrolled the building of this modern arena, and last season's title-winning team, had suffered financial meltdown. DSB bank, which Scheringa owned and sponsored both club and stadium, had gone bankrupt. As a consequence their Arsenal-style shirts were bereft of a sponsor's logo.

While the administrators search for a buyer – and the first interested parties, to the alarm of the Dutch football federation, are from the Middle East and Ukraine – the show must go on. As Ronald Koeman, their coach, said with satisfaction, "the players proved they have spirit".

The mood was set by a giant banner reading 'Dirk: We will never surrender'. It was reinforced at the start of the second half when, over the public address, came the unmistakable sound of Sir Winston Churchill uttering the same immortal line.

At that time the sentiment seemed fanciful. AZ trailed, and had mustered one dangerous shot, from former Tottenham reserve Mounir El Hamdaoui after 25 minutes. Vito Mannone, who, in a development which will not have pleased Manuel Almunia, had kept his place in goal despite Saturday's error against Birmingham, watched it skim over the bar.

Arsenal threatened only sporadically themselves as Mendes da Silva and Stijn Schaars, sitting in front of the defence, stifled the creativity of Fabregas and Abou Diaby. The best opportunities, as so often, came from counter-attacks. In the 10th minute Alex Song led a break, feeding Andrei Arshavin. He crossed to Robin van Persie and a goal seemed certain but Sergio Romero, fresh from helping Argentina reach the World Cup finals, made a good save.

Arshavin also went close from another Song break before Arsenal were gifted a goal. AZ like to pass the ball out of defence and it proved their undoing when Niklas Moisander gave possession away to Arshavin. The Russian sent Van Persie away and the latter's unselfish cross was turned in by Fabregas. Arsenal might have settled the game before the break when Arshavin and Fabregas set up Van Persie but Romero, somewhat fortuitously, saved.

Arsenal exerted greater control in the second period but chances remained scarce, Van Persie and Arshavin wasting the best two. This encouraged AZ and Gaël Clichy and Carlos Vela joined the previously cautioned Van Persie as they pressed.

Twice AZ might have levelled. First Diaby, who infamously headed in the winning goal at Old Trafford this season, turned a corner over his own bar off his shoulder blades. Then Hector Moreno missed from five yards after Arsenal failed to deal with a deep free-kick. At the other end Vela tumbled in the box under a challenge from Moussa Dembele. "It looked a penalty, but I have to see it again," said Wenger. "The referee was closer than I was."

Finally, in the 93rd minute, Schaars sent in a free-kick from the halfway line, substitute Graziano Pelle headed across goal and Mendes da Silva volleyed spectacularly past Mannone. AZ, who had conceded an injury-time equaliser in their last tie at home to Standard Liège, exploded with joy, and another of Wenger's hairs turned grey.

AZ Alkmaar (4-2-3-1): Romero; Jaliens, Moisander (Wernbloom, 85), Moreno, Poulsen; Mendes da Silva, Schaars ; Dembele, Holman (Pelle, 72), Martens (Lens, 68); El Hamdaoui. Substitutes not used: Didulica (gk), Klavan, Wernbloom, Van der Velden, Swerts.

Arsenal (2-3-2-3): Mannone; Gallas, Vermaelen; Sagna, Song, Clichy; Fabregas, Diaby; Eboue, Van Persie (Vela, 75), Arshavin.Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Ramsey, Silvestre, Wilshere, Gibbs, Merida.

Referee: M Hansson (Sweden).

Group H

Results so far: Olympiakos 1 AZ Alkmaar 0, Standard Liège 2 Arsenal 3; Arsenal 2 Olympiakos 0, AZ Alkmaar 1 Standard Liège 1; AZ Alkmaar 1 Arsenal 1; Olympiakos 2 Standard Liège 1.

Arsenal remaining games: 4 Nov: AZ (h); 24 Nov: Standard Liège (h); 9 Dec: Olympiakos (a).