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Football: GUNNERS GO DUTCH AND ARE DE-NIED; CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SPECIAL: GROUP B, ARSENAL 1 AJAX 1.

Byline: Martin LIPTON Chief Football Writer

THEY are a class apart in the Premiership, but Arsenal still lack the real belief that makes a Champions League-winning team.

Facing an Ajax side disrupted by injury, Arsene Wenger's men should have sauntered to the victory that would have taken them to the brink of the last eight and added weight to Highbury's Treble dreams.

Instead, despite the perfect start from Sylvain Wiltord, the silky touch of Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira's drive from midfield, Wenger could only watch in frustration as his team frittered away the chances after Ashley Cole's mistake was punished by teenage rookie Nigel de Jong.

It was a familiar Champions League story for the Gunners boss, whose team have won just one out of five European games at the former Fortress Highbury, with Bergkamp so unlucky to see his late shot come back off the post.

But with David Seaman forced out of the action at half-time, exposing the lack of goalkeeping depth at the club, this was a sobering night after Saturday's celebrations at Manchester United.

Martin Keown's back injury saw Pascal Cygan drafted in alongside Sol Campbell at the back.

The other Gunners changes were the expected three from the side that had sparked Sir Alex Ferguson's temper tantrum, with Thierry Henry, Bergkamp and Gilberto all returning to the side.

There was another reminder of events at Old Trafford before the start, with the Tannoy revealing that Wenger could not announce his team on the big screens because he had lost his voice, "unlike Alex Ferguson, who lost his head".

The joke went down well, but the serious business was earning the three points that would take Arsenal a huge stride towards the knockout phase and that Treble dream. Ajax had arrived only 40 minutes before kick-off - they could not blame the Congestion Charge for that - and initially did not look prepared at all.

Inside two minutes, Bergkamp demonstrated his desire to make a point against the club where his illustrious career began, whipping in a cross from the left that Patrick Vieira headed wide.

Three minutes later Arsenal were in front, with Bergkamp again playing his part as they pinged the ball across a sticky-looking pitch.

Campbell broke up an Ajax attack and fed Vieira, who rampaged to half-way before finding Bergkamp.

Wiltord's run down the outside was matched by Bergkamp's perfectly-weighted pass and the French striker slipped the ball through the legs of goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont.

It was Wiltord's 10th goal of the season but his first in Europe this term, and with Vieira masterful, and Bergkamp and Henry wanting the ball, Arsenal looked for more against an injury-hit Ajax who seemed overawed and in danger of being over-run.

Henry, given time to measure his shot, fired a left-footer wide from 20 yards before the Gunners were pegged back in the 17th minute.

It was a double catastrophe for Ashley Cole, who should have cut out Tomas Galasek's crossfield ball.

Even then, the England defender had a second chance, but was beaten on the inside by De Jong, who picked his spot as Seaman came off his line. Not bad for an 18-year-old scoring his first senior goal.

Arsenal were rocked, and it needed a vital block by Campbell to prevent Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic taking aim after he went past Gilberto on the Ajax left.

Bergkamp and Vieira were still probing for openings, but the complexion of the game had altered and while Henry's snapshot forced Lobont to gather, Arsenal were now the team affected by nervousness, badly missing Keown's assurance.

Another Zlatan run into the box caused palpitations as Campbell again dived in to clear and when Galasek found Brazilian midfielder Maxwell on the left, Seaman had to be alert to hold his cross-shot.

This was not what Wenger or his team had envisaged.

Gilberto still appeared to be suffering from his trip to China with Brazil, while Henry too often elaborated rather than playing the simple ball.

Henry's touch let him down when Bergkamp threaded through a crowded box 12 minutes from the interval before Robert Pires collected a Vieira pass and curled a foot or so wide from 20 yards.

Pires, though, should have done far better when Bergkamp - whose challenge on Galasek had been questionable - and Wiltord played him in on goal seven minutes before the interval. Only a bobble could excuse the shot that flew high into the Clock End.

Arsenal were at least back in the ascendancy, and when Vieira found Henry, who shot on the turn, Lobont was lucky as the rebound flashed past the onrushing Pires.

When a groin problem meant Seaman didn't emerge for the second half, with Stuart Taylor taking over in goal, there was increased concern around Highbury.

Arsenal were struggling to recreate the fluency with which they had opened the match, and when Gilberto was caught in possession, Andy van der Meyde flashed a shot just over the bar.

But the Gunners should have gone ahead on 55 minutes when Lobont came haring out of his goal to beat Bergkamp to Henry's through-ball.

Wiltord and Pires passed up the opportunity to shoot at the undefended goal before the keeper recovered his ground to paw Henry's effort wide.

Now Arsenal were becoming increasingly anxious as Lobont rode his luck, especially when Bergkamp turned superbly onto Wiltord's pass and saw the ball rebound off the upright with 18 minutes left.

ARSENAL: Seaman (Taylor 45), Lauren, Campbell, Cygan, Cole, Wiltord, Silva (Jeffers 72), Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp (Kanu 84), Henry.

AJAX: Lobont, Trabelsi, Chivu, Pasanen, Van Damme (Witschge 76), Pienaar (Yakubu 90), Galasek, De Jong, Maxwell, Van der Meyde, Ibrahimovic (Boukhari 78).

54% POSSESSION 46%

5 SHOTS ON TARGET 3

13 SHOTS OFF TARGET 4

1 OFFSIDES 1

5 CORNERS 5

8 FOULS 17

ATTENDANCE: 35,427

MAN OF THE MATCH: Vieira

CAPTION(S):

SYLVA SERVICE: Team-mates celebrate with Arsenal scorer Sylvain Wiltord; THE JONG ONE: Nigel de Jong levels for the Dutch side in the 17th minute as Arsenal defender Ashley Cole and David Seaman are left flailing Pics: CHRIS TURVEY; WORRIED MAN: Arsene Wenger looks on as Arsenal were made to struggle
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 19, 2003
Words:1028
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