February 21st, 2006 • 10:07 pm
I really did not think that I would be writing such a headline. The last few weeks in domestic competitions really did give the impression that this season was a complete write-off and that there was little point in writing about it. How everything can change with a single outstanding, stupendous performance!
In truth, we all know, deep down, that Real Madrid are not the force that they were a few years back. A number of players seem to be past their prime, and they have already been through a couple of different managers this season.
But this is still Real F***ing Madrid! At the Bernabéu! In the Champions’ League knock-out stage! Wow.
It is so great to see everyone at Arsenal proving the critics wrong. Arsène Wenger with his plan and ability to motivate the players. Thierry with his remarkable performance and his fantastic goal. Hleb with his first really significant performance for the club. The supposedly make-shift back four. The entire team, really. There was not one bad performance. There were a few dicey moments, but very little was wasted, except for a few opportunities to put the result beyond any doubt. Had it not been for Casillas, the Gunners would indeed have won 2-0 or 3-0.
When Arsenal started the game so well and almost scored after 80 seconds, I thought, “OK, they are going to have a good start, but if they don’t score, surely it won’t last and it will be very difficult to hold on.” But last it did. They held on. And they eventually scored. They then adjusted the tempo of the game, but still looked dangerous and defended well. They were able to sustain this remarkable performance for the full 95 minutes. There was maybe one tricky moment when the Spaniards perhaps had legitimate claims for a penalty kick after a foul by Reyes, but to their credit they didn’t really harass the referee about it, probably in light of the fact that the Madrid striker had already pushed the ball too far when he was apparently fouled, thereby raising the suspicion that he might have fallen too easily.
What I really did find amazing was the accuracy of the passing and interceptions throughout the game—in sharp contrast to the Real Madrid performance. This was still a team with Zidane, Beckham, Ronaldo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, after all. I was really expecting more dangerous situations for the Gunners. There were a few, but Lehmann did his job, and so did all the young guys in the back, including left-back Flamini (the only player really in a make-shift position) and Ivory Coast right-back Éboué, who even ventured forward on a few occasions and committed very few fouls.
And then there was Thierry Henry. He did pretty much everything right. He had the right attitude from the get-go, not getting too angry or impatient. And he scored a fantastic goal, brushing aside a number of players before slipping the ball past Casillas. We are used to seeing him score goals like this against domestic opposition, but this was a big game, and he delivered.
Now all we need is for him to sign that bloody contract and end the speculation for good! Wenger hopes the win will sway him, but of course it’ll probably take more than a single game. Certainly Wenger has proven that his confidence in the young players coming through the ranks is not misplaced. But Thierry Henry also has to convince himself that he is willing and able to put in the kind of performance he put in tonight more frequently, especially in “big games,” and be inspirational enough as a captain to spur his team mates to perform as they did tonight.
Now, of course we shouldn’t get too excited over this win. It was remarkable, but it’s still only half of the job—a big half, but only a half. The Gunners still have to deliver a similar performance at Highbury, and Madrid are not going to go down without a fight. We were also probably lucky that Jonathan Woodgate got injured so early in the game, seeing that he had apparently turned into quite a player for Real Madrid in recent weeks.
And just eliminating Real Madrid—if we can do that, and now at least we have a very decent chance—is not going to salvage our season. It is still quite unrealistic to expect the Gunners to pull out a Liverpool-like performance in the competition and go all the way through. Beating Tottenham for fourth place in the EPL is still a more important goal.
But still, it was quite a night. A famous win that will live long in the memory of Arsenal fans. And that, in itself, still made it worth being a supporter of the club this season.