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Pirès leaves Arsenal purring

AFC Ajax 1-2 Arsenal FC Fredrik Ljungberg and Robert Pirès struck as the visitors claimed a win which put them clear in Group B.

Two-goal cushion
Ljungberg put the English side in front as early as the second minute, and when Pirès doubled the lead from the penalty spot midway through the second half the three points looked assured. Markus Rosenberg pulled a goal back almost immediately, but Arsène Wenger's team survived the final 19 minutes for a victory which gives them a three-point cushion at the top of the table.

Key absentees
Arsenal went into the game with question marks over their scoring ability with Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry sidelined and Robin van Persie suspended. Wenger therefore opted for the experimental pairing of José Antonio Reyes and Ljungberg, and within two minutes of kick-off, the ploy had paid off.

Rapid attack
Matthieu Flamini capitalised on some hesitancy in the Ajax back line to feed Reyes, whose first-time pass found Ljungberg in space. The Swedish international had only the goalkeeper to beat and did so with typical aplomb, adroitly chipping Hans Vonk to register Arsenal's 100th Champions League goal. It was the worst possible start for a makeshift home side, for whom Wesley Sneijder had become the latest addition to a lengthy injury list with a hamstring problem. In the absence of their fulcrum, Ajax's three-man midfield struggled to impose themselves.

Three-pronged attack
Instead, the onus fell on the three-pronged attack of Ryan Babel, Nourdin Boukhari and Angelos Charisteas, but although all worked early openings, only the third-named forced a save from Manuel Almunia, deputising for the suspended Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal. Wenger's men sat back, content to strike on the break, and only poor control prevented the nimble Ljungberg from making the most of more tentative defending from Thomas Vermaelen.

Bridging the past
Vermaelen typified his team's gauche first-half performance as he failed to assert himself against the canny visitors. It was announced last week that 12 bridges in a new park around Ajax's former De Meer home will be named after the side that monopolised the European Champion Clubs' Cup from 1971-73. On the early evidence here, it could be some time before the bridges that snake the River Amstel outside the ArenA carry the identities of the current squad.

Ajax ascendancy
Steven Pienaar ventured forward as the half wore on, but missed a gilt-edged chance on the stroke of half-time after good work from Boukhari. The striker ghosted past Ashley Cole, drew Almunia and squared to Pienaar but with the goal at his mercy, the South African blazed over. It was nevertheless a welcome lift, and Ajax started the second period firmly on the front foot.

Narrow misses
Babel and Nigel de Jong flashed efforts wide but, just as they were beginning to threaten, the Eredivisie team lost their rhythm when Charisteas was forced off after colliding with Kolo Touré, and were soon further behind. Nine minutes past the hour, Arsenal won possession on halfway and Flamini sent Reyes clear, the Spaniard rounding Vonk only to be upended. Pirès duly placed the spot-kick past the Ajax goalkeeper.

Rosenberg riposte
The two-goal cushion lasted only two minutes, however, as Almunia brilliantly tipped Tomáš Galásek's long-range strike on to a post, only for the rebound to fall perfectly for Rosenberg to tap in. Both sides had openings in the final 15 minutes, but Ajax were unable to find an equaliser to leave Arsenal sitting pretty.