Frustration, But Cautious Optimism for Arsenal
The history of European football is full of unlikely victories by teams like Villarreal in fixtures in which they seemed to have finally overreached themeselves. In recent years alone the progress of Porto and Liverpool towards ultimate glory were both characterised by a persistent sense that at some stage someone would end the madness. Arsenal would do well to remember that as they take their one goal lead to El Madrigal next Tuesday. While they would appear to have the whip hand in this one, the Yellow Submarine is far from sunk just yet (can you sink submarines? Any nautical experts out there please feel free to advise..).
It was a rather frustrating last European evening at Highbury for Arsene Wenger and his hitherto buccaneering troops. Arsenal only intermittently reached the level of fluidity which bamboozled Juventus at the corresponding stage of the quarter-final. Their game is, of course, based on such finely calibrated machinery that it is not unprecedented for it to stutter on occasion. But while they never rose to the heights of the Juve game (Cesc Fabregas in particular failed to dominate as he did in that fixture), Villarreal displayed a gnarly obstinacy and aptitude for pragmatic matchplay that both explains how they have made it this far and gives Arsenal cause for worry for next Tuesday.
A club of Villarreal's size does not make it to the Champions League semi-final by taking on the big boys toe to toe. Manuel Pellegrini's game-plan was quite clearly, and justifiably, based on the notion of disrupting Arsenal's momentum and flow. The Gunners' hopes of fully subjugating Villarreal disappeared with each exaggerated injury stoppage and and foul. Also, the Submari, while rarely threatening to get the away goals which did for Rangers and Inter Milan in the previous rounds, consistently attempted to keep possession when they had it, passing the ball around between Senna, Riquelme, Forlan and Sorin with little menace but with the desire to take the sting and pulse out of Arsenal's efforts to kill the tie.
Pellegrini will have drawn a measure of satisfaction from the result, although his side lost the game. Wenger too will have been highly satisfied by the performance of Gilberto Silva in nullifying Juan Roman Riquelme. While previews of the match had suggested that the Arsenal manager would not detail anyone to man-marking the Argentine, the sight of Gilberto doggedly snapping at Riquelme's heels throughout the game looked a lot like man-marking to me.
It is one of the fascinations of this advanced stage of the Champions League to watch how top level coaches approach the game and the tactical measures they choose. A pity then that the quality of the officiating was not similarly of the highest quality. Both sides suffered - principally Villarreal with the denial of a penalty for Gilberto's first half tackle on Jose Mari, and Arsenal with a goal by Henry wrongly disallowed for offside - but there were countless other errors, particularly incorrect offside calls. These were not even errors mired in the confusion of the active/inactive fog, just plain pub league incompetence.
The possession of a lead, and the bonus of not yielding an away goal leaves Arsenal in control of this tie and with one foot, apparently in the final. Furthermore, their capacity for swift counter-attacking suggests that an away goal of their own in El Madrigal is well within their grasp, particularly as Villarreal must attack at some stage. But the Spanish side are resolute and will be patient. If Arsenal attempt to sit in and defend their lead, they will present their opponents with the slow type of game which a peerless lock-picker like Riquelme was made for. Taking the game to their opponents with their customary dash carries its own inherent risks as well.
However, if reassurance is needed, Arsenal know that they only need to continue what they have achieved in nine previous Champions League matches in succession: keep another clean sheet.