Arsenal 0 Ajax Amsterdam 0: Henry errs as Arsenal miss the perfect six

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The Independent Online

The Champions' League may bill itself as a gathering of Europe's 32 finest teams but Arsenal failed to join an even smaller élite last night by not beating Ajax. A win, which would have come their way if Thierry Henry had converted a 45th-minute penalty, would have made them only the fifth club in the 13 years since the competition's revamping to win all their opening six group games.

With Arsenal having already won the group, naturally Arsène Wenger made several changes to his team, resting the likes of Jens Lehmann, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva and Freddie Ljungberg while Dennis Bergkamp was deprived of a possible last match against the club where he grew up, due to an injury.

There was still a host of established names, although the inclusion of midfielder Sebastian Larsson, making his Champions' League debut, was something of a surprise. With seven minutes gone the 20-year-old Swede even managed an inadvertent shot on goal, when Thierry Henry's flick led to a poor clearance that ricocheted off Larsson's thigh but was picked up with ease by the Ajax goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.

By contrast to previous campaigns, Arsenal's encounters in the Champions' League this year have been games in which they have, mostly, flourished. They came into this tie with a perfect record from their previous five games and a sixth would put them up there with Barcelona, Milan, Paris St-Germain and Spartak Moscow, the only clubs to have won all six of their opening group games. A sixth win would have been cause for celebration, possibly tempered by the fact that none of those clubs went on to win the competition after that feat.

Yet it was the visitors, who could not improve their second place in the group, who looked more interested in what was the deadest of dead rubbers. Five minutes after Larsson's "shot", Markus Rosenberg saw his shot blocked by Kolo Touré and the striker was then only denied after 20 minutes by Manuel Almunia quickly throwing himself at his feet.

In an otherwise barren first half for the hosts, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie was set up by Jose Antonio Reyes' corner but from six yards out he fluffed his lines. Owusu-Abeyie was then denied three minutes before the break when his shot was punched out and Reyes sent the rebound over the crossbar.

After Larsson, Wenger had sprung another surprise by playing Henry as a lone striker, something he tried, with Bergkamp in that role, in the FA Cup final last season, a ploy that was a notable failure.

But formations do not matter much when it comes to penalties, and Henry was culpable of failure there too. With the first half in stoppage time, Tomas Galasek was harshly adjudged to have fouled Reyes. From the spot-kick, the Frenchman shot low and wide of the right-hand post.

Robin van Persie, on as a substitute to huge cheers from home fans but jeers from the visiting support due to his Feyenoord upbringing, did make a chance for himself with nine minutes left, but having worked his way in from the byline, he found Stekelenburg one obstacle too many.

Indeed, Almunia then had to produce the best save of the night, diving full-length to his left, one minute from time, to deny Nigel de Jong a late winner for the visitors.

Arsenal (4-5-1): Almunia; Eboue, Touré, Senderos, Lauren (Gilbert, 75); Owusu-Abeyie, Larsson, Flamini, Hleb (Fabregas, 62), Reyes (Van Persie, 65); Henry. Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Cygan, Djourou, Lupoli.

Ajax (4-3-3): Stekelenburg; Heitinga, Grygera (Trabelsi, 15), Vermaelen, Juanfran; Maduro (De Jong, 29), Galasek, Sneijder; Pienaar, Rosenberg, Boukhari (Babel, 80). Substitutes not used: Lobont (gk), Rosales, Anastasiou, Lindenbergh.

Referee: E Iturralde Gonzalez (Spain).

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