Arsenal left frustrated as dogged Ajax strike back

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The Independent Football

Although there was little danger of Thierry Henry being injured by an errant flying boot in the Highbury dressing room last night the disappointment was writ large on Arsène Wenger's face after Ajax provided far sterner resistance than Manchester United.

Wenger turned away with a scowl when time was called on Arsenal's fourth successive winless home Champions' League tie. Set up by Sylvain Wiltord's fourth-minute goal, Arsenal threw away victory when they conceded a sloppy equaliser to 18-year-old Nigel de Jong within a dozen minutes.

Wenger's grim mood deepened when he discovered Valencia had stolen a victory in Rome leaving the top of Group B congested enough to warrant interest from Ken Livingstone. Arsenal, Ajax and Valencia are locked together on five points apiece with Wenger's side yet to visit either fellow contender.

Adding to Arsenal's problems was David Seaman half-time withdrawal with a hip injury. With Rami Shaaban breaking his leg at Christmas and Guillaume Warmuz cup-tied, Stuart Taylor is the only fit senior goalkeeper eligible for Europe. Should Seaman not recover Craig Holloway, an untried 18-year-old, will be on the bench when Arsenal's campaign resumes in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

Unlike Alex Ferguson, whose post-match silence is self-imposed, Wenger was literally speechless afterwards, having lost his voice earlier in the day. Pat Rice, his deputy, said it was too early to assess Seaman's fitness. He added of the match: "We are disappointed but believe we can go to Amsterdam and win."

Arsenal were also shorn of Martin Keown, a back injury denying Ruud van Nistelrooy's sparring partner a tilt at a few more Dutchmen. Although his organisational abilities may have helped prevent the Dutch goal neither his nor Seaman's absence was critical last night. More problematic was the familiar failure to convert chances, though fewer clear-cut ones were created than usual.

This was largely down to Ajax denying Arsenal space through deep defence, not that they were entirely negative. In the first half they matched their hosts' intelligent movement and slick passing and were always dangerous on the break. This despite the absence of their veteran genius, Jari Litmanen, and heir apparent, Rafael van der Vaart.

Ajax had arrived only 40 minutes before kick-off, delayed by London's traffic. This may have been a factor in their conceding the early goal. After Sol Campbell broke up an Ajax attack, Patrick Vieira found Dennis Bergkamp, who relayed the ball into space for Wiltord. He drove through Bogdan Lobont's legs for his 10th goal of the season.

"After the first four minutes I was hoping it would not be too bad a defeat but we got into the game more and scored a fantastic goal," said Ronald Koeman, the Ajax coach. The goal, while well-worked, again exposed Ashley Cole's naive positioning as De Jong stole in behind him on to a crossfield pass from Tomas Galasek. The busy teenager's expert finish belied the fact that it was his first goal.

The match remained easy-on-the-eye with neither side conceding possession wantonly and passes never pumped aimlessly forward. Arsenal began to press Ajax back but Lobont formed an impressive barrier notably when stretching to deny Henry shortly before the break. He was just as sharp nine minutes into the second period when he came rushing from his area to clear from Bergkamp, then chased back just in time to turn Gilberto Silva's follow-up for a corner.

With Arsenal bringing strikers off the bench and throwing bodies forward a series of half-chances were created but, with Gilberto Silva, Kanu and Pires all missing it was Bergkamp, playing against his Alma Mater, who came closest mid-way through the half. Receiving the ball with his back to goal he turned and shot in one flickering movement. With Lobont stranded the ball bounced away off the post taking Arsenal's victory hopes with it.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman (Taylor, h-t); Lauren, Campbell, Cygan, Cole; Wiltord, Gilberto Silva (Jeffers, 71), Vieira, Pires; Bergkamp (Kanu, 84), Henry. Substitutes: Parlour, Van Bronckhorst, Edu, Stephanovs.

Ajax (5-3-2): Lobont; Trabelsi, Pasanen, Galasek, Chivu, Van Damme (Witschge, 75); De Jong, Maxwell, Pienaar (Yakubu, 90); Van der Meyde, Ibrahimovic (Boukhari, 78). Substitutes: Didulica (gk), Bergdolmo, Sneijder, Seedorf.

Referee: L Batista (Portugal).