April 21st, 2006 • 8:45 am
It was not quite the fireworks that were hoped for for the final European game at Highbury. But it was yet again a strong performance based on solid defending, against a Spanish side that looked more often interested in play-acting than in actual football playing.
Sure, they probably had a decent penalty claim in the second half, but other than that, their performance on the pitch was quite ridiculous. This play-acting business seems to have become a trademark of the Iberian and Italian leagues in recent times. There’s a certain amount of theatrics everywhere in football, including in the English Premier League. But teams like Mourinho’s FC Porto and this Villareal side seem to have really elevated it to an art form in and of itself.
No matter what the teams’ other qualities might be, this blatant strategy make them unlovable—and, indeed, the problems with Mourhino’s current team and their “most hated” tag stem in great part from the same issue. Anyone remember that Champions’ League semi-final between Chelsea and Monaco in 2004 and Makelele’s theatrics of the highest order that got a Monaco player sent off? It was only the first in a long list of incidents…
Who wants to see this kind of thing in the world’s most exciting club competition? That’s definitely a part of the game that is not enjoyable, and for that only Villareal deserve to be eliminated.
Unfortunately, it’s quite job done for the Gunners just yet. Once again, they obviously suffered from the lack of a “fox-in-the-box” player who’d convert clear chances into real goals. On several occasions, Thierry Henry made a wonderful run on the side and sent the ball across, only to see it go past every Villareal defender with no Arsenal player in sight to tap it into the net. Pirès and Ljungberg used to be pretty effective in that role, but somehow it’s no longer happening for them. (Maybe they simply don’t have the legs to make all those runs anymore.) They still play a big role in midfield, but we need someone else in front to convert Thierry Henry’s blatant superiority into actual goals and actual clear-cut victories.
Instead, we have a slender 1-0 lead to take to Spain for the second leg next Tuesday. It’s better than the 2-1 lead that Inter Milan had, because Villareal don’t have an away goal. If we manage to score just one goal in Spain, the tie will be effectively over. Villareal seem simply incapable of scoring more than one goal.
But will we get the same amount of play-acting again, and will a different referee react differently? It would be pretty awful, for example, if Arsenal managed to qualify for the final, but Touré got suspended because of a yellow card caused by some Spanish theatrics. Let’s just hope this does not happen and the Gunners can finish off the Spaniards in style in four days.
Before then, there’s a slightly tricky feature tomorrow morning at Highbury… Unsurprisingly, Sol Campbell and his broken nose are out—but were he ever likely to get a starting place in the team in the first place? Touré and Senderos could probably use a rest, but they don’t seem to be too tired at the moment, and should be OK for both the London derby and the return leg on Tuesday. It’s a crucial time for the Gunners!