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Gunners’ Champions League progression hangs in balance after first-leg draw

Arsenal were held to a 2-2 draw by Ajax in the first leg of their Women’s Champions League Round 2 qualifier at Meadow Park on Tuesday.

Jonas Eidevall’s side were pinned back in a pulsating first half but came racing out of the blocks after the break, though were unable to put away their chances and face a tough task of beating the Dutch giants in the return leg.

Gunners goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger was forced into an early save with her legs to keep out a thunderous strike from Victoria Pelova as Ajax began brightly.

The Austrian stopper then had to react quickly to keep out Sherida Spitse’s effort from range, but was helpless to prevent Ajax from taking an 18th-minute lead, with Romee Leuchter firing in at the near post.

Arsenal responded well to this early setback as Beth Mead’s free-kick was spilled by Lize Kop, though Stina Blackstenius somehow couldn’t steer in the rebound.

But Blackstenius wasn’t to be denied moments later when she was first to react to a Rafaelle header that crashed against the crossbar, firing home to level the scores.

Ajax maintained an aggressive press throughout the first half, continually making Zinsberger work and robbing Arsenal defenders of possession.

Leuchter nearly doubled her tally at the near post once more before the break but Zinsberger this time got a glove to it.

Just after the break, the Gunners thought they had gone in front after Steph Catley went racing through on goal, but she could only find the woodwork and Ajax were let off the hook.

Arsenal’s strong start to the second half continued when Rafaelle hit the pot from close range, and the hosts were awarded a penalty after Beth Mead took a tumble in the box. Kim Little stepped up and sent Kop the wrong way to put the Gunners ahead.

England captain Leah Williamson was given an invitation to shoot from all of 35 yards soon after, and her speculative strike wasn’t too far away from beating Kop.

The Dutch goalkeeper produced another great smothering save to deny Catley from adding a third, and Arsenal were pegged back at the other end when Leuchter poked home during a scramble in the box.

Arsenal were denied a late winner when Katie McCabe found the net, but the offside flag had been raised and the goal was chalked off.

The second leg will take place at De Toekomst on the outskirts of Amsterdam next Wednesday, with Arsenal needing a win – either before the end of extra time or on penalties – to reach the group stage.

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