Ajax 1 Arsenal 2

Arsenal in control after show of strength
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The Independent Football

Victory in the Dutch capital, combined with Sparta Prague's shock defeat to Thun in Switzerland, means they are already three points clear, with their major group rivals, Ajax and Sparta, a further two points adrift. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said he was still "cautious" but Ajax coach Danny Blind recognised the reality lamenting: "We are playing for second place."

Last night Arsenal had the perfect start when Freddie Ljungberg scored in the second minute and looked to have made victory safe after Robert Pires converted a controversial 67th-minute penalty. An instant reply from Markus Rosenberg threatened a tense conclusion but Arsenal held out in some comfort.

Victory was a triumph for Arsenal's oft-criticised squad-strength. When they posed for a team picture before the game one wondered what future football historians would make of the photograph. With injuries and suspension ruling Henry, Gilberto Silva, Robin van Persie, Dennis Bergkamp and Jens Lehmann out of the frame it was an unfamiliar gathering. For Arsenal, though, the result made it as significant a group portrait as Rembrandt's Nightwatch, which resides a few miles away from here.

"We had good teamwork, solidarity and organization with a very young team," said Wenger. "We are missing many players at the moment, but after a dodgy start we are getting a good run together which will lift confidence."

At least Arsenal had been able to include Pires. "He was not 100 per cent but I put him in because we were so young," said Wenger.

In the circumstances it would have been understandable if Arsenal had started slowly. Instead they went off like a case of sweaty Dynamite.

Just 80 seconds had elapsed when Mathieu Flamini released Jose Antonio Reyes through the centre of a statuesque home defence. He drew the cover then slipped the ball to Ljungberg. The Swede calmly waited for Hans Vonk to commit himself then dinked the ball over him for Arsenal's 100th Champions' League goal.

"Freddie scores a lot of goals away from home because he gets in good positions," added Wenger. "He is a winner. He came out with a great performance."

Inevitably Ajax, whose own team selection had also been dictated by injury problems, notably the hamstring strain which prevented Wesley Sneider from even taking up a place on the bench, took time to create clear chances. Ryan Babel shot optimistically over after 12 minutes and it took a smart interception by Sol Campbell to keep Nourdin Boukari from running onto an Angelos Charisteas pass in the box.

His intervention highlighted a crucial difference between the teams. While both were weakened Arsenal had been able to field their first-choice back four. Ajax, by contrast, put out a makeshift one and it showed again when errors by Nigel de Jong and Thomas Vermaelen allowed opportunities for Pires, from a free-kick, and Ljungberg.

Neither were taken and Arsenal's need to score a second was highlighted as Ajax began to knit their passing game together. Boukari broke through the centre, drew Almunia, then unselfishly squared for Steven Pienaar. With an empty goal to aim at the South African blazed over.

In the second period Arsenal were content to concede possession and invite Ajax onto them. The policy had risks but the advantages were devastatingly underscored when Cesc Fabregas released Reyes behind the Ajax backline. He dashed into the area, drew Vonk into a rash challenge, and went down.

"It was 100 per cent no penalty," said Blind angrily. "The goalkeeper's arms were by his body. [Reyes] pushed the ball past and left his leg hanging. You see this in football but you have to have played the game to recognise it."

Pires coolly converted but the travelling fans' celebrations proved premature as Tomas Galasek, unchallenged, chanced a shot from 30 yards. Almunia tipped it against the post but Rosenberg stabbed in the rebound.

With Campbell in commanding form Arsenal suffered no further alarm. "I expect Sol will be called up by England at the weekend," said Wenger. "He was terrific. Now you are seeing the real Sol. He is lasting till the last minute."

Ajax (4-1-2-3): Vonk; De Jong, Grygera, Vermaelen, Emanuelson (Juanfran, 85); Pienaar; Galasek, Lindenbergh; Babel, Boukhari (Manucharyan, 69), Charisteas (Rosenberg, 55). Substitutes not used: Lobont (gk), Heitinga, Escude, Boakye.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Hleb (Cygan, 90), Fabregas, Flamini, Pires (Clichy, 88); Ljungberg; Reyes (Owusu-Abeyie, 81). Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Song Billong, Eboue, Lupoli.

Referee: LM Cantalejo (Spain).

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