Arsenal’s WCL hopes in balance after Leuchter’s first-leg double for Ajax

Arsenal face a tricky trip to Amsterdam next week, after a 2-2 draw at home to Ajax put their hopes of reaching the Champions League group stage in the balance.

The Gunners came from behind in the first half, with Stina Blackstenius cancelling out Romée Leuchter’s strike before Kim Little put the home team ahead from the spot. A controversial offside decision denied the Gunners a second penalty and Leuchter then ensured that the Dutch side would be returning home with the tie level.

“You have to look forward,” said manager Jonas Eidevall afterwards. “You have to say there are lessons in this game to be learned. You can argue based on chances we should have won. It’s going to be an intense game next week but we have to be brave. If you want to go into the Champions League group stages you have to win those games. You can either be afraid of those challenges or look forward to them.”

If there was a question mark over Eidevall’s Arsenal last season, it was perhaps whether there was enough resilience and fight when the team conceded first. Just twice, in all competitions, would the Gunners come from behind to secure a win – though they would also rescue a point apiece against Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham.

This perceived weakness would be tested early on against Ajax, a team who are not one of Europe’s elite, but are a well-organised side bolstered by Netherlands internationals Sherida Spitse, who has over 200 caps for her country, and young stars Victoria Pelova and 21-year-old Leuchter.

It would be Ajax that would carve the better chances with Pelova forcing a save from Manuela Zinsberger early on before Leuchter flicked Chasity Grant’s cross from the right beyond the home side’s goalkeeper at the near post.

The Arsenal players looked extremely frustrated at having conceded their first goal since April. They sought an instant reply, with Euros Golden Boot and player of the tournament Beth Mead going for goal from a free-kick – goalkeeper Lize Kop spilled the ball but Blackstenius could only hook the rebound wide of the post.

Three minutes later and the Swedish forward was not so profligate, pouncing after Rafaelle’s header from a corner had smacked back off the crossbar to fire past Kop.

Arsenal continued to control the tempo, but struggled to find a way through. Instead, the visiting team would again threaten, with Zinsberger forced into a save at her near post after Leuchter had beaten Rafaelle and struck for goal.

“We knew they were a very pressing team,” said Eidevall of their first-half struggles. “When you look at their PPDA [which measures passes allowed per defensive action] versus all the teams in the WSL and the Dutch league they were the team with the lowest PPDA in all the games that [analytics platform] Wyscout covers. You can only have that when you have a lot of pressing. We did our homework on that – even if it didn’t look like it.”

The Gunners came out after the break with the bit between their teeth but they struggled to find a way through the resilient centre-back partnership of 17-year-old Isa Kardinaal and 21-year-old Lisa Doorn.

Arsenal would twice hit the post, through Steph Catley and Rafaelle but it would take an error to force a goal, with Soraya Verhoeve penalised for clattering heavily into Mead’s head just inside the box. Up stepped captain Little who sent the keeper the wrong way and sidefooted coolly in.

Arsenal could perhaps feel aggrieved their margin was not greater. Substitute Caitlin Foord was released through the middle and clattered into by Kop but the offside flag was controversially up denying them a possible penalty and red card. Moments later they were to rue the decision further, as some chaotic defending saw Noelle Maritz beaten and England captain Leah Williamson fail to clear allowing Leuchter to swipe in from close range.

Eidevall said some of the decisions were frustrating but added: “ Let’s not put the focus there now because we have things that we can learn here and that’s where we need to put our focus. They’re not going to redo the decisions.”

Arsenal went in search of the winner. They looked to have one when substitute Katie McCabe turned a free-kick into the roof of the net from close range but the flag was up for offside.

Eidevall’s side next faces Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, where there will likely be a WSL record crowd with 48,000 tickets sold, before they travel to the Netherlands for the return leg.