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Adam Szreter reports from Highbury
In the end the joint Group B leaders shared the spoils here tonight, with four-times European champions AFC Ajax refusing to bow to Arsenal FC's billing as one of the firm favourites to win this season’s UEFA Champions League.
Though they were hanging on slightly by the end, the Dutch gave as good as they got after an early setback, and if substitute Nourdin Boukhari had managed to convert a half-chance four minutes from time they may yet have won. Instead a point apiece means Valencia CF, victors in Rome, move level on five points with the pair, although Ajax sit top.
Arsenal, who have now won just one of five home Champions League ties this term, were virtually at full strength, the only surprise being the absence of veteran defender Martin Keown, Frenchman Pascal Cygan taking his place. Ajax, beset by injuries, welcomed back captain Cristian Chivu and Tomàš Galasék after suspension.
Nevertheless Ronald Koeman's young side made a hesitant start against the English champions, falling behind in the fifth minute. From an Ajax attack, Patrick Vieira, who had headed wide from the first chance of the game, swept the ball forward to Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman fed Sylvain Wiltord, who advanced unopposed through the inside-right channel before shooting between the legs of Bogdan Lobont.
De Jong curls equaliser
Ajax settled after that, drawing confidence from Chivu's apparent composure, but it was still a surprise when they equalised after 17 minutes. Galasék's long pass was so perfectly judged it gave Nigel de Jong, one of only two Dutch players in the side, just enough space to cut inside Arsenal left-back Ashley Cole before curling a left-foot shot beyond David Seaman.
Moments later only a last-ditch intervention by Sol Campbell stopped Zlatan Ibrahimovic putting Ajax ahead, with Arsenal plainly rattled, and the game turned into a fast, free-flowing spectacle, albeit with clear chances at a premium. For Ajax, Galasék prompted and South African Steven Pienaar probed, while for Arsenal the French quartet of Vieira, Robert Pires, Wiltord and Thierry Henry looked particularly sharp.
Two shots apiece from Pires and Henry were the closest Arsenal went to adding to their tally in the first half, Lobont saving well from Henry's second attempt four minutes before the break, while Seaman had to be alert in the Arsenal goal to gather a drive from the Brazilian Maxwell midway through the half.
Taylor replaces Seaman
With the exception of Seaman, replaced by Stuart Taylor at the interval, the two teams picked up in the second half where they had left off at the end of the first. Andy van der Meyde fired a metre over the bar for Ajax, while Lobont had to race out of his area to hack the ball clear from Bergkamp, before racing back to save on his line from Gilberto.
After a cross-shot from Cole had skimmed across the face of the Ajax goal, Bergkamp then grazed the outside of the post with a typically inventive shot on the turn before Arsenal's young striker Francis Jeffers replaced Gilberto with 20 minutes remaining. But hard though they tried, Arsenal's disappointing run of results at home in the Champions League continued.
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