Date: 16th April 2012 at 11:01am
Written by:

Arsenal Ladies being the behemoths of the domestic game they are, it`s quite rare to attend a match where they aren`t overwhelming favourites. Particularly at home. Indeed, the bookmakers had them at 7-5, with Frankfurt at 6-4. It tends to be a massive surprise if Arsenal don`t overpower their opponents physically and tactically. But there would be no such liberty against a very imposing Frankfurt outfit at Boreham Wood. Arsenal manager Laura Harvey came into the game talking up the importance of attacking Frankfurt and taking a solid lead to Germany next Saturday. Frankfurt`s formidable home record will have likely been on her mind there.

Harvey opted for the experience of Rachel Yankey in the starting line up, ahead of the lively Jordan Nobbs. Frankfurt arrived having not yet registered an away goal in the competition, but they haven`t conceded many either. It wasn`t hard to see why. From the off they were incredibly well organised. They set up with a back four and three central midfielders in front, with Huth and Garefekes supporting lone striker Sismek from the flanks. Most sides will set up similarly against Arsenal. The difference this time is that Frankfurt were physically stronger.

Arsenal have the capability to get crosses into the box and mix their style of play up when teams frustrate them. But Frankfurt won the majority of the physical duels and aerial challenges, making it difficult for Arsenal to assert themselves. Their best period was probably in the opening ten minutes, when they flew out of the traps. Nevertheless, they struggled to force Desiree Schuman into meaningful action. Alex Scott careered forwards from right back, cut back onto her left foot and sent a shot towards the top corner, only for Schuman to save. Jayne Ludlow ought to have done better when she met Ellen White`s right wing cross but miscued her header. Frankfurt coach Sven Kahlert, stood just in front of me in jeans and trainers, cut an animated figure on the sidelines.

The flow of the game was interrupted half way through the first half when captain Sandra Sismek collapsed under an innocuous collision with Ludlow. Sismek hobbled towards where I was sat, her face crumpled in tears with what looked like a painful abdominal injury. Possibly a hernia. I thought it might swing the game in Arsenal`s favour as Frankfurt had hardly looked like scoring and the removal of their top scorer was hardly likely to aid that. Instead they moved Crnogorcevic upfront. She played like a natural, holding the ball up and leaning into Flaherty and Grant with muscle. It was like watching a female Drogba without the irritating histrionics.

Frankfurt went closest when Katy Chapman fouled Huth. Behringer fizzed a fierce free kick just wide of Emma Byrne`s post. Had it found its target, I`d wager the net might have come free of the posts such was the ferocity of the shot. The game became something of a war of attrition and the only other chance of note came from a set piece. Steph Houghton hit a twenty five yard free kick which swerved viciously in mid air, forcing Schuman to readjust her footing and plunge to her right to beat it away. But at half time, Frankfurt would have been the more pleased with the stalemate.

The Germans were buoyed by their first half performance and started the second half very brightly. Behringer once again tried her luck from range but Byrne was equal to the effort. But Crnogorcevic really ought to have scored after Huth wriggled past Fahey to the by-line and pulled back, only for the Swiss striker to drag her shot wide. Flaherty and Grant were playing a very high line and Crnogorcevic (and I thought typing Szczesny`s name was a pain) looked keen to exploit. Just after the hour mark, Percival slipped a ball between the Arsenal centre halves, Crnogorcevic powered her way towards goal before slotting low into the corner past Emma Byrne. It looked to be a long way back for Arsenal. But to their credit, they equalised seven minutes later.

Steph Houghton delivered a corner to the back post and Ciara Grant was all alone to head home the equaliser. Harvey decided to introduce the pace of Carter and the running of Jordan Nobbs in midfield as Arsenal pushed for a winner. Though they pressed in any number of different ways, they couldn`t find an opportunity. Houghton, I think, lost every single header she contested in the midfield. Little and Chapman weren`t able to find gaps to run into. Ludlow- so used to physically dominating midfields- found her opponents well matched to the might of her tackles. The game looked to be petering out into a draw until a cruel blow was struck in the 3rd minute of stoppage time.

Once again, Huth powered down the right hand side past Fahey and put a low cross into the back post. Garefekes slid in ahead of Flaherty and connected with the cross with the end of her toes, just prodding the ball past Byrne and into the corner. A draw would probably have been a fair result and still would have left Arsenal with plenty to do. But the stoppage time strike makes Frankfurt hot favourites to progress given the fact that they have won all of their home ties by three goals at least in this season`s competition. Arsenal will now have to score two goals at least in Germany next Saturday. If Frankfurt produce anything close to the solidity they displayed yesterday it will be a huge ask. The final is in Munich, so they have the added incentive of playing a Final that would essentially be a home tie. It`s an advantage they`d need too; with Lyon winning their semi final 1st leg 5-1 against Potsdam, last year`s winners are essentially guaranteed to be the opponents.

On the plus side, it was good to see Meadow Park attract roughly three times the attendance you usually see for Arsenal Ladies` games. All four stands were opened and I hope the defeat doesn`t discourage people from coming again- especially during the summer months. Impressions of the Arsenal side shouldn`t be soured, this stage of the competition brings out the crème de la crème of the Ladies` game and Laura Harvey`s side usually make the last four, having also won the competition in 2007. They face an enormous task in Frankfurt on Saturday. Kickoff is at 1.15pm GMT and I believe is being screened on Eurosport. Of course, that clashes with the men`s team`s game with Chelsea, which is a shame. Nevertheless, good luck to the Ladies in looking to “pull an Anfield” there. LD.

1.BYRNE, 22.SCOTT, 5.FLAHERTY, 7.GRANT, 19.FAHEY, 4.LUDLOW©, 17.CHAPMAN, 16.LITTLE (12.Davison `89), 2.HOUGHTON, 9.E.WHITE 15.Carter `67), 11.YANKEY (8.Nobbs `81). Unused: 3.Tracy, 14.Beattie, 18.Ladd, 25.Adams.

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