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Arsenal women edge closer to European dream
Having seen their male counterparts steal the headlines with their exploits in Rome the night before, on Thursday Arsenal Ladies quietly went about the business of European conquest themselves in the slightly less glamorous surrounds of St. Albans. A 1-1 draw against Russian champions CSK Samara was enough to seal a 3-1 win on aggregate and a place in the semi-finals of the Women's UEFA Cup.
Driving rain and distinctly Siberian temperatures conspired to scupper any hopes of a decent crowd, while televised European games involving Leeds and Liverpool the same evening probably didn't help. But Arsenal will feel their endeavours now deserve more attention after what was, in coach Vic Akers' words, "a feat only a handful of women footballers have achieved."
As it was, the few hundred who braved the elements saw a scrappy game. But there were things to savour, not least the performance of Arsenal's teenage goalscorer Ellen Maggs. At 5 foot, and weighing just 7.5 stone, the waif-like Maggs looks an unlikely match-winner. But the smallest player on the pitch was head and shoulders above the rest. It was her sparklingly quick feet, incisive passing and willingness to get stuck in against players almost twice her size, that gave Arsenal the edge in a game that, on chances made, they really should have won comfortably.
Maggs is fast filling the gap left by the talismanic Marieanne Spacey, now playing for rivals Fulham. The game's star performer was ably supported by fellow striker Jayne Ludlow and by Angela Banks, whose link-up play and strong runs down the right flank got better and better as the game went on, especially after the arrival of Welsh national team captain (and manager) Sian Williams, half way through the second half.
Samara's head coach, Alexander Soloviev, blamed his side's poor performance on the absence of two first-choice strikers, and the Russians certainly lacked any kind of cutting edge. But in truth, their evident lack of ambition suggested that they had already lost the tie in their heads after the first leg. As it was their most experienced player, the industrious Grigorieva - one of seven internationals in the Samara squad - cut a solitary figure as she did her best to create problems for a generally solid Arsenal back four.
That said, Samara's goal in the 26th minute - cancelling out Maggs' strike 10 minutes earlier - was largely of Arsenal's making, after a goalmouth scramble and rare defensive mix-up left 'keeper Emma Byrne unable to hold a soft shot by Olga Kremlova.
Arsenal have now gone one better than last year when they reached the quarter-finals. With the ascent of Fulham and resurgence of Doncaster Belles meaning that they no longer have things all their own way on the home front, European success would be especially sweet. Their hopes of further progress will be boosted by the fact that they will avoid holders Frankfurt and last season's runners-up, Finnish team Umea in the semis. Instead they will meet Danish champions and UEFA debutants, Fortuna Hjorring, with the home leg possibly played at Highbury. With Maggs on such form Aker's side, like Wenger's, could be forgiven if they are already dreaming of silverware.
Dan Brennan at Clarence Park, St. Albans
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