Apr 082009

Villareal 1 (Senna 10) Arsenal 1 (Adebayor 66)
(Champions League Quarter Final)

Advantage Arsenal, then. After an opening half which could have turned into a complete disaster, a stupendous overhead kick from Adebayor sees us favourites to progress, a result any fan would have bitten your hand off for after the opening stages. We could have been overrun, out of the tie after half an hour, but now we’re in a really strong position going into next week’s second leg.

The side was the same as Saturday, except Nasri in for the cup tied Arshavin, but we started poorly. In those opening moments, Almunia first picked up an ankle knock making a clearance, before confusion from a corner should have seen the Spaniards take the lead. Minutes later, they did score, Senna screaming one in from outside the area, although he wasn’t closed down by anyone. It is hard to see whose job it was to pick him up though, the only possible culprit being Denilson, who could have been tighter.

And then it went from bad to worse. Almunia was forced off, and will probably be out for a couple of weeks (which on the one hand, doesn’t sound too bad, but does when you consider those two weeks include the second leg, an FA Cup semi with Chelsea and a league game at Anfield), and Gallas’ season may have been ended by medial ligament damage when a clumsy Song foul sent Rossi tumbling on to his badly twisted leg.

We were in disarray. Fabianski was called upon to make a great double save as soon as he arrived (although if he had left the first effort, it would have gone wide), and while we were forcing plenty of corners, their keeper was having a quiet evening.

Shortly before half time, Cesc tried Henry’s old trick of taking a quick free kick, slotting home only to receive a booking for his troubles. I’ve watched the incident repeatedly and have come to the conclusion that the referee did not tell Cesc to wait for the whistle, but did begin to count the steps to force the wall back. The latter action implies the whistle must be waited for, so he was right to disallow the goal, but having not specifically told our captain to wait, he shouldn’t have booked him. Not the best piece of refereeing, but otherwise he had an excellent game.

He certainly didn’t fall for the theatrics of the Spanish players who set about trying to get Cesc sent off early in the second half, Eguren laying on the ground for an improbable time after an innocuous tackle, with the players pleading for a second yellow as soon as play stopped. And then again when Clichy committed a routine foul, Godin begged for a card. My only disappointment is that the official didn’t see fit to book the card waving offenders, but at least he didn’t fall into their trap.

By that point, the momentum of the game had done an about turn. Where Villareal were bossing the first half, playing some sublime football and making us look distinctly average, suddenly we had turned the tables and were running them ragged. All that was lacking was the final ball – Clichy’s crosses were getting blocked, Sagna’s were finding yellow shirts, and Walcott’s had no pace to them.

And then came the piece of magic that turned the tie in our favour. Cesc, dropping deeper, found Adebayor on the edge of the area with a long pass, which the big man controlled high on his chest before swivelling and hooking the ball into the corner. It took everyone by surprise, and utterly deflated the hosts. Indeed, in the ten minutes that followed we could have capitalised and scored again, but that would have been too much to ask, to be fair.

Besides, the Spaniards still had one trick up their sleeve, and it was one so familiar to us – Robert Pires. On as a substitute, the 35 proved he still has an eye for a pass, and his introduction suddenly made Villareal all the more incisive – every ball that left his foot was positive, dangerous, and perfectly weighted. He was warmly applauded by both sets of supporters, but the biggest compliment I can give him is the fear I had every time he put his foot on the ball. Fortunately, despite a few late scares, we saw the game out.

And so we go into next week’s game knowing that our opponents have to come at us and score at some point, which is the position we are most happy with. The tie isn’t over by any means, but we are strong favourites now. And to add to the joy, if we make the semi final we may not even be facing United, after some more slack defending saw them draw 2-2 at home to Porto, who are pretty fearsome in their own stadium.

Now, we have to wait for injury reports, but in the meantime, enjoy what was a fantastic evening.

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