Arsenal 1 – 0 Villarreal
1 – 0 Toure (41)
Before the game I saw Arsene Wengers checklist for the night:
1. Win The Game
2. Keep Clean Sheet
3. No Bookings
So tick, tick and double tick against all of them. I would suggest that he would have been disappointed to only score one goal given the level of possession that his charges enjoyed but he will have been pleased with the overall performance against a well organised defensive unit. It would be churlish to complain about the perfectly good goal Henry had chalked off for offside when there was an absolutely cast-iron, blatant Villarreal penalty not given when Gilberto went through the back of Jose Mari. Indeed, I think those were the only poor decisions the referee gave all night and is something for UEFA to ponder on when they (a) decide the officials for the Return Leg next Tuesday and (b) when they dish out the reward of officiating at the Final in Paris. The official certainly had no truck with the excessive theatrics of Jose Mari which probably counted against him in the penalty decision.
Overall, there is little complaint about the performance. Understandbly nervous to begin with – how that early goal may have settled them – the defence, with Toure in particular seeming to suffer from first night nerves, settled into their routine and were rarely troubled by the Spaniards from open play. Indeed, this aspect probably pleased Wenger the most over the ninety minutes, with Villarreal being reduced to direct freekicks from Riquelme and one chance to Arruabarenna from a corner. In a further indication of what a topsy turvy Champions League Campaign this is, Arsenal threatened more danger in the first thirty minutes from corners – Senderos, Gilberto and Toure all missing presentable chances – than they have in the last two domestic seasons.
The absence of Reyes was marked last night, perhaps more noticeable than anyone would have expected. When the midfield had the ball in the centre, there was no escape route other than Henry. On several occasions, Hleb had the ball towards the right hand side of the pitch and Eboue storming outside him but he chose to go towards the left hand side rather than use the overlap. This occurred repeatedly in the first half to the extent that I found myself wondering if the Ivorian and his Belorussian counterparts had exchanged a few choice words before the match and Alexsandr was not passing to him. Ljungberg on the left meanwhile was not as effective as he used to be although when it came to getting runs into the area, he proved that he still has the knack of being in the right place at the right time, even if the ball is in the wrong place. A couple of times in each half, passes from Fabregas to Henry and Ljungberg were cut out just as it seemed there was going to be a clear chance to score.
The goal itself was probably the only time in the first half that the Villarreal defence went to sleep, even then it was a midfielder who did not do his job. A corner from Henry was dealt with but when the ball was slipped onto the left edge of the area, Hleb found himself unmarked as Senna had switched off, his cross turned in by Toure. Apparently that was his first ever goal at THOF.
It seems odd to be writing that after last night, there will not be another match played in an evening at the ground. It is fitting that after all the disappointments suffered in Europe’s top club tournament that the last chance the team had to put that record right was the one that they took. It goes a long way to wiping out the failures against Ajax, Benfica, Valencia, Deportivo and Chelsea, setting the second leg up nicely. I am not convinced that the match will be that much different, Villarreal from what I have seen this season do not press on and on at opponents until necessity takes over. Should Arsenal score first and leave the Valencians needing three goals, it would be a Herculean effort for them to achieve. Were the hosts to open the scoring, then game on and a true test of progress. And look at that, I got all the way through without mentioning the Pitch Invading Squirrel. D’oh!
Still, just the small matter of the Tiny Tots on Saturday to contend with first.
Today’s Tunes are from 1997’s T In The Park, performed by Monaco: