Progress in this seasons Champions League is increasingly becoming the matter of exorcising the ghosts of past demons. Victory over Villareal last night saw us reach the semi-finals 12 months on since the injustice of the loss to Liverpool at the same stage. The semi’s see us up against Manchester United, and a chance for payback after the humiliation we suffered there in the FA Cup last season. And victory there could see us face Barcelona in the final, and no one needs reminding that there’s old scores to settle there.
The events of Tuesday night were a timely reminder that a good first leg result away from home doesn’t necessarily set the tone for a comfortable home leg. A 0-0 would see us through, but given that four of our first choice back five were missing, surely the best form of defence had to be attack. And so Arsene wisely elected to start with a 4-4-2 formation, Song partnering Cesc in the middle of the park. None of this malarkey playing Denilson and Song together in a 4-5-1 (not that I have anything against them, I just think it’s far too negative a strategy.), plus it saw Cesc in his best position, dictating play from deep.
It was also a homecoming for Robert Pires who wore red-and-white (or rather, redcurrant), when these two sides met 3 years ago. Deserved applause for him throughout from the home fans, but once the football started, surely the niceties had to be put to one side.
Of course when these two sides met at Highbury those years ago, the main talking point was a pitch invasion by a squirrel, who even to this day, has more Champions League experience than the entire Spurs squad combined.
Arsenal came haring out of the blocks at full speed, a Van Persie shot deflected into the keepers arms, and minutes later a header from the same player going just over the bar. The visitors were struggling to keep up, but fashioned a chance of their own on 8 minutes, a free kick finding Diego Godin unmarked at the far post but his acrobatic volley went straight into Fabianski’s arms.
And then the breakthrough. A quick throw from Van Persie set Cesc free in acres of space down the left, and he cut the ball back to Adebayor, who inexplicably decided to do a 7200 degree turn on the spot and get his legs in a tangle instead of just whacking it in with his left foot. We won back possession, played it around a bit, then Eboue passed to Cesc, who did a little shimmy and suddenly Theo was free down the right bearing down on the goalkeeper. And just as I was thinking that he’d taken the ball out too wide and was well closed down by the keeper, he produced a deft chip that sailed beautifully into the far corner. He’s obviously been spending time on the training ground with Vela.
So a deserved lead for Arsenal, and the way the match had been going, you would expect more. Capedevilla was having a torrid time trying to keep up with Theo, who was once again set free, this time by Van Persie, but his cross was poor and went straight to a yellow shirt. Adebayor headed Nasri’s cross wide when a knock down for the onrushing Van Persie would have been a better option. Minutes later, after a Cesc shot had been deflected, he stole between two motionless defenders and got to the high ball first, but headed it straight to the keeper.
Then a freekick in a dangerous position right in Van Persie territory. His fierce shot was well saved by Lopez but the rebound fell straight to Adebayor. His header towards an open goal was weak, however, and an assortment of panicking Villareal defenders managed to hack the ball right off the line. The crowd howled for a goal, but replays showed the officials had made the correct decision.
On 35 minutes Theo actually produced an accurate cross, and Gonzalo made a right hash of clearing it, the ball bouncing off both his legs, the goalkeeper pouncing desperately on the loose ball before the lurking Van Persie or Adebayor could get to it.
As the half wore on, Villareal got more into the game, Godin heading well over the bar when he could have done better. Cue half-time.
Villareal started the second half brightly, Gonzalo sending a snap shot just wide after a free kick had come off the wall.
Then on the hour mark, a lovely header down from Cesc fell to Van Persie, who took some nifty touches, before playing a delightful ball through to Adebayor, who showed good composure to pass the ball into the far corner with the outside of his foot. 3-1 on aggregate, and surely curtains for Villareal. The sight of Arsene doing a little dance on the touchline was amusing to say the least.
On 67 minutes, controversy. Godin and Walcott got into a tangle just inside the area, the linesman signalled for a penalty and the referee obliged. Granted, a very generous decision, Villareal lost their cool, Eguren questioned the referee’s parentage, and was promptly shown a second yellow. Nothing fazes Van Persie, and he smashed home a traditionally convincing penalty. His attempts at joining in with Adebayor and Song in the dancing celebrating were less convincing though.
From there on, there really wasn’t much doubt, Arsenal just striking the ball around, Villareal realizing that it wasn’t so much a mountain as the whole Himalayan range that they had to climb to get anything out of the game. All three goalscorers were subbed, with the Chelsea game looming large on Saturday. Diaby shot wide when passing would’ve been a better option, Bendtner headed wide from a delightful Gibbs cross.
Full-time, and a comfortable win for Arsenal and onwards we march into the semis for the first time since the agony of 2006, as we look to right a few wrongs. And as they say, two wrongs don’t make a right.